The writer is a former foreign secretary.
Chief Minister Narendra Modi has done it. In his typical, inelegant manner, he has raised the curtain on Saarc’s lifeless cadaver. What else could one expect from a man who was in fact considered responsible for the 2002 Gujarat riots that killed over 2000 Muslims and who was blacklisted as persona non grata by the EU and the US?
What now remains is Saarc’s final burial and the best locale for the unceremonious event would be the place where it was born 31 years ago. Ironically, Modi’s best partner in this inauspicious event will be none other than his Bangladeshi counterpart who is known for executing those sympathetic to Pakistan.
But when it comes to Saarc’s demise, it is India alone that should take the credit. Here I am reminded of an interesting tweet three summers ago from a friend in Kathmandu which said: “Monsoon has arrived in Dhaka, Kathmandu, Delhi and Lahore. Monsoonal unity of South Asia is impressive (and) needs to transfer to geopolitics.” Sitting in Kathmandu, with the Himalayan overview of monsoonal rainbows, one could not have come out with a more romantic theme for resuscitation of the lost South Asian charm and unity. But one must understand why my friend was agonising over this enigmatic region’s unpalatable geopolitics.
Home to one-fifth of humanity, South Asia offers so much to the world; yet, it is held back by perennial conflict and poverty. Despite the monsoonal commonality, it remains one of the poorest regions of the world with a vast majority of its peoples still living in grinding poverty and sub-human conditions. Five of the eight Saarc members – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives and Nepal – belong to the UN’s category of Least Developed Countries or LDCs. With rare exceptions, these countries also lag behind in genuine democratic tradition and good governance. What, after all, is wrong with this region? It is not just poverty and backwardness, it is its geopolitical deformity.
Geographically, a structural crack in the crust of a body is known as a fault-line. While regular faults and shortcomings can be removed, a natural fault-line cannot be repaired without replacing the plates back on their original spot.
No wonder, for the sake of the people of South Asia, whose future is defined to such a large extent by India, my friend in Kathmandu had reason to ask: “Are we sure about India as it is constructed or isn’t it time to consider reformatting it?” Indeed, India’s oversized geographical centrality deeply cuts across the region’s ‘regionality’ leaving it with little or no ‘regional impulse’ for any notable genuine political or economic regional integration.
India’s overbearing regional ascendancy gives it a hegemonic clout that generates many problems in the region, including the fear of domination among its smaller neighbours and a host of border conflicts and water disputes all of which involve India as a common factor, be it India-Pakistan, India-Bangladesh, India-Nepal or even India-Sri Lanka.
Ironically, all South Asian countries except Afghanistan share borders with India as the largest state of the region but not with each other. This not only gives India a virtual control over intra-regional trade but also makes transit trade difficult with no room for bypassing Indian borders. This unique geographic feature seriously limited the scope of any regional cooperation.
Because of this peculiar situation, India also stands more or less alone as an exclusive ‘power’ without having to be identified in tandem with the rest of the countries in the region. Its longstanding ambitions for a dominant position not only in South Asia but even beyond from Iran to Thailand are no secret. As early as September 1946, Jawaharlal Nehru as minister for external affairs in the then interim government had claimed that “there are only four Great Powers in the world – USA, USSR, China and India”. Britain did not appear in the list presumably because the new India being conceived by Nehru was envisaged to be the successor of the British in the East.
Since then, India has been positioning itself as a dominant military power with serious implications for peace and security of the whole region. Its nuclear triad creates serious concerns and fears among the smaller states of the region. It is this anomalous geopolitical situation that has kept Saarc from delivering on its promise or potential if it had any. While other regions are moving ahead with accelerated economic growth and affluence, South Asia remains mired in its unbroken legacy of poverty and conflict. The EU and Asean are success stories only because they had the advantage of geopolitical harmony in evolving a common approach in meeting their socio-economic challenges.
In the absence of a cohesive regional impulse, Saarc remained captive to the geopolitics of the region. Throughout its existence, Saarc has remained fraught with mutual mistrust and centrifugal tendencies from the very beginning. Political differences and bilateral disputes have impeded its performance. Absence of an intra-regional dispute settlement mechanism has severely limited its capacity to develop the needed regional approach.
Afghanistan’s admission into Saarc as its eighth member at the 2007 New Delhi summit was in itself a deliberate attempt at deepening Saarc’s geopolitical fault-lines. No wonder, as long as Afghanistan is in turmoil, there is no prospect of any breakthrough towards genuine economic integration in this part of Asia.
To perform, Saarc needed an enabling environment, free of mistrust and hostility, without which no regional arrangement anywhere in the world has worked. At the last Saarc Summit in Kathmandu in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, did acknowledge the region’s dilemma. He said: “Ham Paas Paas Hain Magar Saath Saath Nahin” (We are so close yet remain far apart).
In a region throbbing with the optimism of our youth, Modi admitted “we have failed to move with the speed that our people expect and want and called for collective remedial efforts...I know India, because of its size and location has to lead, and we will do our part. I hope each of you will, too.” How ironic that Modi took two years to mobilise that ‘collective’ effort.
But in doing so, he brings Saarc to its trashy end. If Prime Minister Modi was a man of vision, he would not be acting the way he is in anger and frustration; he would have risen above his known limitations and explored how to eliminate the root causes of longstanding disputes in the region. Instead, he opted to remain in his narrowly based, hatred-driven chief ministerial frame of mind with a dubious ‘hit-and-miss’ reputation. Modi’s obsession with Pakistan is finding manifestation in antics, one after the other; these antics have brought the region to the brink of another deadly war.
Incidents are being engineered to deflect global attention from the brutalities being perpetrated by his security forces in Indian Occupied Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan has rejected his “litany of falsehoods and a travesty of facts and history that only reflects the deceit and hostility towards Pakistan...”
If this region is to find its place in today’s changing world, it will have to come out of its geopolitical logjam. But the trust deficit within the region will not go away until India as a larger country in the region inspires confidence among its neighbours by removing their fears of its hegemonic ambitions in the region. But are we sure about India?