It’s not about expansion. It’s about SAARC’s very existence.
Keeping in mind this reality, (India’s) approach to SAARC was the only one logically sustainable â€“ we set aside our differing political and security perceptions for the time being, and focus attention on economic cooperation. Our expectation was that the very dynamic of establishing cross-border economic linkages, drawing upon the complementaries that existed among different parts of our region would eventually help us overcome the mutual distrust and suspicion which prevents us from evolving a shared security perception. This remains our hope today, even though the record of SAARC in this respect, has been hardly inspiring. The fact is that SAARC is still largely a consultative body, which has shied away from undertaking even a single collaborative project in its 20 years of existence. In fact, there is deep resistance to doing anything that could be collaborative. On the other hand, some members of SAARC actively seek association with countries outside the region or with regional or international organizations, in a barely disguised effort to â€œcounterbalanceâ€ India within the Association or to project SAARC as some kind of a regional dispute settlement mechanism. [Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, Feb 2005/MEA]
It is abundantly clear that many of India’s neighbours do not see SAARC this way. At the Dhaka summit, Pakistan’s prime minister has again declared that it remains his country’s policy to link “free trade with Kashmir”, even if means it gets neither. And yet another chapter in the use of SAARC to ‘balance’ India was written this week when Nepal, supported by Pakistan and Bangladesh decided to demand China’s inclusion as a dialogue partner, as the price of India’s own attempts to bring Afghanistan into the South Asia’s premier squabbling society. ‘Differing political and security perceptions’ again got the better of the ‘economic cooperation’ that India desires. The Indian prime minister’s offer to kickstart an open skies policy ended up as a sideshow. The much talked about free-trade agreement is expected to be launched in 2006. But free trade itself will have to wait until 2016.
Let’s play squabble
Despite being in force for over two decades, the agenda for SAARC summits has remained the same — how to breathe new life into a pathetically dysfunctional and ineffective multilateral organisation. The Dhaka summit itself, and the events leading up to it, indicate that the time has come for India to pause and reconsider its involvement in the grouping. The fundamental question the Indian foreign policy establishment must ask is whether or not SAARC adds any value to India’s policy towards its neighbours. The answer, which even the Indian foreign secretary conceded, is quite obviously a ‘No’.
India’s stated policy in South Asia involves making neighbours partners in its growth. It has been able to achieve this to some extent with Sri Lanka. But Pakistan, Bangladesh and now Nepal have political priorities that come in the way of trade and economics. Not only is SAARC ineffective in overcoming political hurdles, it has become a vehicle for these countries to promote their political interests vis-a-vis India. There is little that India has gained from its membership of SAARC. In comparison, India has seen tangible benefits by merely being a dialogue partner of ASEAN.
A game for two and no more players
It has never been clearer that India can achieve whatever it seeks to achieve through SAARC — open skies, free-trade or security — through separate bilateral processes. Instead of an ‘one size fits all’ approach, India can calibrate its engagement with its neighbours depending on the extent of convergence of mutual priorities. So free trade and open skies with Sri Lanka need not be held hostage to Pakistan and Bangladesh resolving their political disputes with India. That this is already the situation on the ground further weakens the case for SAARC.
Apart from deriving a linkage with (India’s) own internal challenges, regional disturbances in neighbouring countries affect us in many other ways. The danger of a number of failed States emerging in our neighbourhood has far reaching consequences for our security and for the well being of our people. [Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Nov 2005/PIB]
The field of international relations is littered with multilateral organisations that are little more than talk-shops. Mere ineffectivenes is not reason enough to pull out of one. But while India could previously bear with SAARC and indulge governments in the neighbourhood, it now risks allowing those very failed states to undermine its interests. On the other hand, there is a strong case for India to adopt a proactive strategy to bring about peace and stability in the region. SAARC, though, either stands in or gets in the way.
Need an “A”. But how to fit this extra “C”?
Instead of engaging Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh in negotiations over the expansion of SAARC and getting into the merits of the “China for Afghanistan” bargain, India should use the Dhaka summit to sound a clear warning that it is time, in India at least, for a critical re-evaluation of SAARC’s existence. As usual, India’s response is all reason and rationality. Instead of reaffirming its commitment to SAARC, it should point out that while its commitment to enhancing relations with its neighbours remains unaltered, its patience with SAARC is not infinite. A threat is only as credible as the capability to make good on it, and India would lose nothing by beginning to pack its bags in public.
It starts with “L”
Any change in course will have to contend with the bureaucracy that SAARC has created within India’s own foreign policy establishment — one that is likely to have a vested interest in its own perpetuation. Change will require imagination and leadership, as much at home as abroad. Lack thereof has created those failed states the prime minister spoke of, but the change of guard at India’s foreign ministry has created an opportunity. It is up to Dr Manmohan Singh to take up the challenge. But he can rest assured that outside the circle of politicians and diplomats whose business it is to be bothered about it, there will be few tears shed if India were to walk out SAARC.