Chas­ing a Pa­per Tiger

Un­less the peo­ple of South Asia rise, SAARC will con­tinue to re­main in the dol­drums.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By R. Har­i­ha­ran

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,

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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?

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