Chasing a Paper Tiger
Unless the people of South Asia rise, SAARC will continue to remain in the doldrums.
Ever since the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was launched in 1985, it has been ‘work in progress’. The grouping remains largely ineffective and hostage to the political polemics of member nations, particularly India and Pakistan.
The leaders of the South Asian states will once again be converging in Kathmandu on November 26 and 27 to attend the 18th SAARC Summit. Of course, as most of these leaders would be adept at public speaking, lofty ideas will be tossed around, with every one of them stressing the historic links of the region to peace, harmony and friendship.
However, at the end of it all the question – when SAARC, the world’s largest grouping of nations, will make a difference in the quality of life of the people – will still be left hanging in the air. Nothing new because this has been the norm.
It is not for want of effort that SAARC has failed to make progress. A look at the SAARC website shows
16 areas – a mélange of alphabets ranging from agriculture to tourism – identified for cooperation at the 17 summit meetings held so far. But the problem lies in translating ideas into collective action.
For instance, the SAARC Convention on Terrorism was evolved in 1987 – within two years of formation of the SAARC – much before the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. Additional protocols to the Convention updated the strategies in 2005.
However, terrorism is more firmly established in South Asia now than when the Convention on Terrorism was originally adopted. The subcontinent has become so fertile a ground for its growth that international terrorism in the form of the Islamic State has also sprouted.
Similar is the progress made on the SAARC Preferential Trading Arrangement (SAPTA) that was finalized in 1993 and became operational in 1995. It was followed by the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) in 2006. However, narrow political considerations and suspicions about each other have prevented its benefits from reaching the ordinary people. Inevitably, the FTAs between SAARC member nations have been slow in coming and the consumer continues to pay the price for the inaction.
SAARC protocols and conventions look good merely on paper. SAARC continues to run in the same manner, with the bureaucracy doing what it can think of. If only the decibels of leaders in the summit meetings could add value, SAARC would have emerged as a vibrant body. But this remains a distant dream and the development story in the region remains a lopsided one, benefitting the haves rather than the have-nots.
Usually any talk about gingering up SAARC starts and ends with India and its fractured relationship with Pakistan. India dominates its South Asian neighbours with its enormous geographical size and overwhelming economic, political and military power. It also occupies a major part of the historical memories of its neighbors. As a result, India’s soft power has become embedded in the region’s religious, social and cultural perceptions with strong but varying internal response. India’s success as a functional democracy since independence and rise as a major Asian economic power has scaled up the latent love-hate feelings about India among its neighbors.
Moreover, its status of being the only nation having land and sea connectivity with all SAARC members, except Afghanistan, gives it a strategic edge over its neighbors. Excluding the Maldives and Sri Lanka, which are island nations, the others do not have land connectivity with each other, except Pakistan and Afghanistan. Cumulatively, all these factors give India an unmatched ability to influence and arbiter issues in South Asia.
Predatory politics in the region has found it a useful tool to fan the fears of India overwhelming its neighbors. India-baiting invariably finds a place both in their political and security perceptions. This has resulted in antiIndia sentiments usually featuring in political discourses during the elections.
In spite of this, most of India’s neighbors have been pragmatic enough to maintain good relations and reciprocate India’s gestures. Nepal and Bhutan enjoy the fruits of such goodwill in the form of unrestricted trade and entry facilities for their citizens. Smaller states like Sri Lanka and the Maldives had sought Indian military assistance in times of political and national emergencies.
Unfortunately, India had been slow to understand the need for taking greater care and sensitivity in wielding its power. Its efforts to change its style since the 1990s have been buffeted by strategic priorities and internal political coalition compulsions affecting its delivery.
Fractious India-Pakistan relations are a major roadblock to the growth of SAARC. The two nations together represent over five-sixth of the 1.7 billion people of the subcontinent. And with their collective economic and political clout, only these two nations have the potential to energize SAARC. But they are yet to exercise their collective power for this larger objective.
It would be facile to argue that the problems of SAARC relate only to the estranged relationship of India and Pakistan. South Asian countries have some inherent problems to start with. They have some of the highest population densities in the world. They also have the largest number of illiterate people and people below the poverty level live in South Asia. Most SAARC members suffer from problems of internal unrest and extremism, lack of resources, poor infrastructure and governance. The life blood of many members has been sapped in combating some of the most powerful terrorist and insurgency groups in the world.
But the positive aspects of the region should not be missed out. These include a young and energetic population, strong entrepreneurship skills, rich mineral and marine resources and ties of shared history and culture. The region offers a huge under-serviced marketplace and ready availability of large technical manpower that can absorb new technologies which are waiting to be exploited.
The harsh truth is that SAARC has failed because its member states have not learnt from the experience of other groups like the ASEAN and the EU to adopt collective action to pool their strengths and overcome their weaknesses. Historical memories have prevented them from building their collective experience which has resulted in the absence of a collective South Asian identity.
It is odious to compare ASEAN and EU with SAARC because each nation has its own baggage of national experiences conditioned by its geographical contiguity, religious and cultural beliefs and perceptions. The historical context and environment in which the EU and ASEAN groupings came about were unique. Both the EU and ASEAN were the products of Cold War compulsions. In the case of EU, the post-World War-II economic privations and the threat of the Soviet Union destabilizing these countries prodded them to come together. On the other hand, ASEAN came about through U.S. patronage to ward off the threat posed by Communist China to Southeast Asia. When the Cold War ended, both groupings focused on evolving their structural frameworks to address relevant issues such as security, energy, developmental resources, trade and commerce,
economic stability and counterterrorism.
In the case of South Asia, there was no common external threat for collective action. The only common factor was the vestiges of British colonial occupation which conditioned not only the perceptions of the former colonial countries but also the independent ones like Afghanistan, Nepal and Bhutan. At present, in all South Asian countries, a democratic dispensation is in place with elected governments in power except in Nepal where the process is on for drafting a new constitution.
In Afghanistan, a new president has been elected and installed while the Taliban threat has been brought to manageable levels. In Pakistan, despite the looming threat of terrorism and a long history of military rule, people preferred to go for democracy.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who assumed office in May 2014, has ushered in an era of political stability. He is trying to change India’s traditional laidback approach to its neighbors. His invitation to the leaders of SAARC countries to attend his swearing-in sent a strong signal that building better relations with them will be his priority. With economic development on top of Modi’s national agenda, India is likely to further trade and commerce links with its neighbors.
Modi has followed up his initial gestures to South Asian neighbours by visiting Bhutan and Nepal first, rather than visiting Japan or meeting with the Chinese President. When India achieved a landmark success by placing a satellite on Mars orbit in its very first attempt, Modi told his scientists to develop a SAARC satellite. “We should dedicate this satellite as India’s gift. We should share the fruit of this with our neighbouring countries,” he said, underlining his preference for India’s neighbours. These friendly gestures should not be missed out in reading the intentions of the Indian prime minister.
There are disturbing developments in and around South Asia that show that time is running out for collective action. With the U.S. and its NATO allies poised to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, the various factions of the Taliban militants are likely to vigorously renew their operations against the elected government in Afghanistan. This could affect the terrorism situation in Pakistan as well.
South Asia has the world’s highest Muslim population. This makes it highly vulnerable to the IS threat which has reared its ugly head in recent months. South Asia has to evolve collective strategies to combat the spread of IS terrorism and militancy in their midst.
Polio and Ebola are two other nonconventional threats of immediate relevance to South Asia. Due to the religious fundamentalists’ objection to polio vaccination, there has been a huge setback in fighting polio in Pakistan which recorded the highest number of polio cases this year. This is an alarming situation for South Asia as a whole, particularly India.
One can keep on adding to the list of non-conventional threats to nations including the western penchant to slap the WTO and intellectual property protocols against competitive pharmaceutical and manufactured products from South Asia.
But will India and Pakistan come together to tackle these common threats? This still remains the ‘Big Question.’ Nothing much has happened on the thaw expected in India-Pakistan relations after the cordial May meeting between the leaders of the two countries.
The India-Pakistan polemics, including the Kashmir issue, are rooted in the seeds of Partition, which divided not only India but the society and people on the basis of religion. While the healing process has made some headway in India thanks to its enduring democracy, Pakistan’s periodic military rules have stopped it from happening. As a result, the two countries have fought four wars during the last six and a half decades of their existence and their leftovers are holding up rapprochement between the two feuding neighbors. Unless the people rise up to change it, SAARC will continue to remain a paper tiger. Will Modi and Nawaz rise up to the occasion?