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SAARC: a slow boat to nowhere?

January 03, 2002

The Hindu

SAARC: a slow boat to nowhere?
By C. Raja Mohan

As the leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) gather in Kathmandu this weekend, the expectations of a substantive outcome from their deliberations are very low. Neither the region nor the world is biting its fingernails about the declaration that will emerge out of the 11th SAARC summit. Nepal, the host nation, which has had the misfortune of managing this much-postponed summit, will heave a sigh of relief that it is over and done with. The media will be more interested in the "body language'' of Indian and Pakistani leaders than in the abracadabra of SAARC officialese.

The story of the 11th SAARC Summit is unlikely to be very different from that of the 10th summit in Colombo in July 1998. Then, as now, the South Asian political leaders met under the shadow of Indo- Pakistan tensions. In 1998 too, everyone was pleased that the SAARC summit took place despite the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests that May. If worries about a nuclear flashpoint dominated the region then, those have become a reality now. This SAARC summit takes place amidst a looming prospect of a military confrontation between India and Pakistan that could escalate to the nuclear level.

Must SAARC remain satisfied with the fact that the leaders get to see each other once in a while and sign on some trivia that their officials manage to cook up? Compared to similar organisations elsewhere in the world, the record of SAARC in promoting regional integration has been dismal. The SAARC summits have become expensive talk shops with little effect on the lives of one and a quarter billion people in the region.

Take for example the discussion at SAARC this time on ``poverty alleviation''. How credible can the political elite of the subcontinent be when they mouth collective statements on eradicating poverty - a promise made a long while ago to their own national constituencies but not kept? Poverty of ideas and timidity of action are the real problems before the SAARC. To be sure there have been many ambitious slogans - a regional free trade area by 2001, a customs union by 2010 and, catch your breath, an economic union by 2020! In the typical subcontinental fashion of ritualising everything, these dates are doled out without any seriousness of purpose. Having missed the deadline of 2001 for a free trade area (agreed in 1997) the 11th SAARC summit now wants it by the end of this year. A free trade area involving India and Pakistan which have just downgraded diplomatic relations and snapped transportation links? Just forget about it. The SAARC is going nowhere. It will begin to go somewhere only if India takes charge. Can the Prime Minister, Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee, make the 11th SAARC summit somewhat different from the previous ones? Mr. Vajpayee is right in the middle of one of the most serious national security crises ever faced by India. The crisis involves a fundamental redefinition of relations with one of its largest neighbours in the SAARC. No one will blame Mr. Vajpayee if he does not come up with big ideas on regional cooperation. His domestic constituencies will be quite happy to see Mr. Vajpayee talk tough on terrorism and just look through Gen. Pervez Musharraf. But Mr. Vajpayee can do better. Even as he keeps the political focus on terrorism in Kathmandu, Mr. Vajpayee can push forward regionalism in the subcontinent by putting out four messages.

First, Mr. Vajpayee must do some blunt talking on what the crisis means for the subcontinent as a whole - that cross-border terrorism and regional cooperation do not go hand in hand. Mr. Vajpayee must speak plainly on the threat that religious extremism and violence pose to all nations of the subcontinent. Cooperation in combating terrorism is not a political favour one nation is doing another, but in the national interest of every country in the region. He needs to emphasise that unless this scourge is rooted out forthwith, the region will find its dreams for peace and prosperity shattered. At the same time, Mr. Vajpayee must unambiguously point to the failures of the SAARC over the last two decades. In speaking to the SAARC, Mr. Vajpayee is addressing the entire region. He has the status to proclaim that India will no longer stand for the current stagnation in the SAARC process.

Second, Mr. Vajpayee must signal that India is ready to take the leadership role in the SAARC. In the early years of the SAARC, it was argued by many that New Delhi must maintain a low profile in the organisation. It was suggested that if India as the largest nation took the initiative, the others would get uncomfortable. India's strategy of lying low has not worked. It has led to a mindless drift. If the SAARC is to become productive, India has to take the lead. No one else will. Pakistan's approach to regionalism has made it abundantly clear it has no interest in the collective advancement of the region. The smaller countries are in no position to set the agenda for the SAARC.

On the core economic issues before the SAARC, Pakistan has been the slowest camel that has set the pace. It has been more interested in bringing its bilateral dispute with India over Kashmir into the SAARC ambit than in trade liberalisation. Pakistan's basic line in the SAARC is that there can be no economic progress unless political issues are resolved. This approach, is the exact opposite of what the other regional organisations have successfully adopted - expand economic cooperation despite political differences. Pakistan's refusal to benefit from regional cooperation has beggared itself. It should no longer be allowed to hold the rest of the region back.

Third, Mr. Vajpayee should proclaim India is ready for a ``two- speed'' SAARC. Mr. Vajpayee goes to Kathmandu days after down-grading the relationship with Pakistan. He needs to demonstrate at Kathmandu that India is prepared to advance economic integration in the region with Pakistan if possible and without Pakistan if necessary. The smaller countries of the region have increasingly seen the benefits of a regional market and are frustrated that integration is not taking place. To prevent regionalism from being held hostage by Pakistan, India must get going with those who are ready. The SAARC charter permits sub-regional cooperation that involves two or more countries. There are serious possibilities for rapid movement among India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan on the one hand and among India, Sri Lanka and Maldives on the other. Pakistan can join this process whenever it is ready to put commerce above politics.

Finally, Mr. Vajpayee can develop a credible strategy for transforming the region only on the basis of a strategy of unilateralism, which can be both negative and positive. Just as he displayed India's negative unilateralism by downgrading ties with Pakistan, Mr. Vajpayee must show he is capable of positive unilateralism in relation to the other neighbours. The best way of demonstrating this will be for Mr. Vajpayee to offer duty free access to goods from the least developed countries of the SAARC. This would mainly benefit Bangladesh at this stage, since Nepal and Bhutan already have that access to the Indian market. There is a separate trade treaty with Sri Lanka. Since the summit is taking place in Kathmandu, Mr. Vajpayee must publicly proclaim India's desire to renew the trade treaty with Nepal on reasonable terms for mutual benefit, and a vision to modernise and transform the bilateral economic relationship. Without India's leadership, the SAARC will continue to drift aimlessly. And for India to lead, it must come up with unilateral measures that will accelerate the process of regional economic integration. If Mr. Vajpayee cannot muster that political will, the 11th SAARC summit will end up as just another forgettable ritual among the South Asian leaders.

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