India should have used the summit to make some important points
Bangladesh and Nepal are in severe political turmoil; Pakistan is increasingly in the grip of violence in Balochistan and its portion of Kashmir; Maldives just completed an election; the logjam between the Tamil Tigers and the Kumaratunga government continues in Sri Lanka. Good reasons, especially the immediate crises in Nepal and Bangladesh, for the postponement this week’s SAARC summit in Dhaka? Perhaps. By cancelling his trip to Dhaka, and effectively the summit itself, Dr Manmohan Singh lost an excellent opportunity to demonstrate India’s regional leadership.
Manmohan Singh should have used the SAARC platform to state the obvious — unless South Asian countries pay attention to their internal stability and national reconciliation, progress and development will remain a chimeric dream. The opposition parties in Bangladesh and Nepal have been calling nationwide strikes and street protests, with reasonable justification. The Baloch insurgency is but a symptom of Pakistan’s hide-and-seek with democracy. The solution to almost all of these problems is national reconciliation based on democracy and political inclusion.
Even if it is argued that SAARC would do well to take the (now challenged) ASEAN route of non-interference into internal affairs, the regional grouping would fail in its charter of delivering development if chronic political turmoil is its chief cause. Alternately, it could perhaps be that the Indian government is at a loss on actually how to respond to a succession of political crises in its neighbourhood, which is inexcusable for a country which has set its eyes on a seat on the UN security council.
The story of Manmohan Singh’s government has been a story of a failure of leadership: personal, national and now, international. This was the time for the Indian prime minister to engage in public diplomacy, to take a stand that there is something rotten in the state of affairs in some countries in the region and it is about time that they fixed it. That may not go down very well with some of the governments in the region, but the message will not be lost among their citizens.