Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s video conference a couple of weeks back with leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) to set up an emergency fund to fight the rapidly spreading Covid-19 pandemic has raised hopes for the revival of an ineffectual regional organisation.
There is little doubt that Covid-19 poses the most serious challenge to all the members of Saarc considering the region’s poor healthcare system and weak state capacities. Covid-19 cases are beginning to spike in Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. A rapidly evolving pandemic that respects no borders demands urgent intervention from Saarc members in a united and responsible manner. In this regard, Modi’s quick outreach to build an emergency to counter Covid-19 was a welcome initiative. Yet one needs to be realistic about the feasibility of this initiative. Good intention is not enough to revive a dying institution.
South Asia, defined by the eight member states of Saarc, is home to nearly a quarter of humanity. Despite the remarkable economic growth of some member countries, such as Bangladesh, Bhutan and India, South Asia’s share of the global poor has increased. The countries of the region still suffer from common problems, such as poverty, illiteracy, poor health facilities, unemployment, that demand collective effort to deal with. This was the vision behind the creation of Saarc in 1985. Despite numerous hiccups, Saarc did manage to set up a range of institutions to address collective problems. Notable among those initiatives are the South Asian University (New Delhi), the Saarc Development Fund (Thimphu), the Saarc Energy Centre (Pakistan), and the Saarc TB and HIV/AIDS Centre (Nepal).
The key reason Saarc has remained dormant is largely due to its long legacy of mistrust among its key members. For instance, owing to India-Sri Lanka differences over India’s military involvement in Sri Lanka’s domestic conflict, Colombo had postponed a scheduled Saarc summit and the ministerial conference. The summit was ultimately cancelled in 1989. Similar was the situation following the 1999 Kargil War due to which the 11th Saarc summit was postponed from 1999 to 2002. Again, the 12th Saarc summit was postponed from 2003 to 2004 due to India’s allegations of cross-border terrorism on Pakistan.
Overall, Saarc has largely remained an overly underperforming regional organisation mainly due to Indo-Pak rivalry. Given India’s rising profile and its strong relations with other Saarc members, such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan, Islamabad has made steady efforts to balance this by getting China on board. While Pakistan succeeded to make China an observer, India has lobbied among other members to deny China full membership to Saarc. Due to inter-member fissures, the organization has only been able to organize 18 summits in its nearly 35 years of existence.
Until the start of the 21st century, India – as the biggest country in South Asia – was playing a leading role within Saarc. However, since 2014 particularly with the change of leadership in India, Saarc has experienced a tumultuous churn.
After winning the Indian elections in 2014, Modi tried a diplomatic masterstroke by inviting all heads of South Asia including Nawaz Sharif to his inaugural ceremony. This then raised unprecedented hope for the reinvigoration of a largely moribund Saarc. However, that was a photo-op moment. The Modi government which has been hyperactive in the neighbourhood with slogans like “Act East” and “Neighbourhood First” has been silent on Saarc. In fact, Saarc found no mention in the Indian government’s much-touted ‘neighbourhood first’ policy. Besides, Modi’s government actively lobbied with other Saarc members – Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan – to cancel the 2016 Saarc summit scheduled to take place in Islamabad. This happened in the aftermath of the Uri attack on the Indian military base that escalated India-Pakistan tensions to a dangerous new height. There has been no meeting among the Saarc heads of states since the 18th Saarc summit that took place in Kathmandu in 2014.
Further, the Modi administration’s two-pronged strategy of isolating Pakistan in the region by enhancing sub-regionalism has its bearing on the status and functioning of Saarc. This intention was made clear by Modi at the 18th Saarc Summit held in Kathmandu in 2014 when he said that regional cooperation in South Asia would progress “through Saarc or outside of it, among all of us or some of us”. This was a clear indication of his intentions of moving ahead with his ‘Saarc minus Pakistan’ scheme through small-scale initiatives on regional integration in South Asia, such as the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) initiative.
The other component is India investing more resources in the creation of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec) that undermines Saarc as well. A shift away from Saarc was also clear at the beginning of Modi’s second term as India’s prime minister when he invited heads of the member states of Bimstec to his swearing-in ceremony on May 30, 2019. While India’s locational centrality and asymmetry in size and resource capacity allow India to play a larger role in shaping the outcomes in Saarc, the Modi government has decided to do the contrary.
Considering the treatment of Saarc under Prime Minister Modi’s first term in office, his mention of Saarc in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis came as a surprise to many. He proposed an emergency Covid-19 fund for Saarc nations – a proposal that has been warmly received by most Saarc members with cash financial contributions towards the fund. To India’s $10 million, other members contributed and the Emergency Fund had accumulated $18.8 million by March 23, 2020. Pakistan is yet to commit to this fund.
While the Imran Khan administration had initially shown eagerness to engage in a dialogue with India, its approach has changed since the Pulwama attack and its aftermath. It seems the top Pakistani leadership believes that there is no point in discussing anything with the Hindu nationalist regime of India that is adamant to isolate Pakistan at regional and global levels. Khan is another populist leader who knows that the aggressive approach on India suits his domestic politics because he used to label Nawaz Sharif as Modi’s friend. Islamabad realizes the importance of Saarc. Despite the cancellation of the 2016 Saarc summit, Pakistan still cleared most of its dues towards the South Asian University.
Pakistan has a historic approach of limiting India’s dominance within Saarc and that was reflected recently in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. Despite having representation in India’s initiated videoconference on Covid-19, Pakistan shared its reservations on the Emergency Fund by demanding this to be managed by the Saarc secretary-general. In addition, Pakistan used this opportunity to raise its concern on the continued lockdown in Jammu and Kashmir. This followed Pakistan’s decision to boycott a videoconference on Covid-19 among Saarc trade officials.
Islamabad has demanded that the Saarc Secretariat, instead of India, should manage such initiatives. While Modi named the fund the ‘Saarc Fund’, it is still unclear how Saarc will be involved in managing this fund to tackle Covid-19 pandemic in South Asia. It is also unclear how this initiative will move ahead given Pakistan has some serious reservations over the initiative particularly the management of the fund. As per the Saarc Charter, no proposal can go ahead without the approval of all its members.
While the idea of a Saarc Covid-19 Emergency Fund may still see daylight and cater to the requirements of the member states, Modi’s inconsistent stance on Saarc inspires little confidence. Like all populist leaders, Modi loves to play to the domestic audiences where disaster outreach will be viewed as something statesmanlike. This also helps him portray Pakistan as a spoiler as far as the dwindling Saarc is concerned. In short, this hardly helps bridge the India-Pakistan distrust which lies at the root of Saarc’s current predicament. Thus, while the Covid-19 pandemic does offer an excellent opportunity to restart Saarc, Modi’s own record and the continued Indo-Pak distrust will turn it into another episode with no real significance for South Asian regionalism.
The writer is a research fellow at Deakin University in Australia.
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