Dispute management, not resolution
This is the gist of the points I made in a brief interview on Channel NewsAsia at 6:40pm IST yesterday. This was in the context of Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar’s visit to Pakistan as part of his SAARC Yaatra.
Q. Amid an aggressive growth agenda, how much of a priority is being placed by Mr Modi on resolving disputes with Pakistan, according to you?
Mr Modi has been keen on improving relations with India’s neighbours right from the word go. I think it reveals something about his mindset — the need for India to carry along its neighbours and its region — because strictly speaking, the neighbourhood does not matter a lot for India’s growth and development.
India’s linkages are to the West to the US and Europe and to East Asia. The subcontinental neighbourhood does not matter much for now. A lot of constraints to growth are domestic.
Q. There have been over 600 ceasefire violations in the past eight months. How much of an impact can high-level talks have on ground reality and actions?
The ceasefire has held for over a decade, so there is abundant evidence that the armed forces can hold their fire if there are top level instructions. A ceasefire is in the interests of both countries: Pakistan can focus on managing its own domestic violence. So too for India.
Q. This is all ostensibly a part of the ‘SAARC Yatra’ by the Indian government. How much has the India-Pakistan problem impaired SAARC’s development?
The problem with SAARC is not merely India-Pakistan relations, although they share part of the blame. The ethos of SAARC is more a collective bargaining forum for India’s neighbours against New Delhi. So countries focus more on what they can achieve vis-a-vis India, than what they can achieve as a group.
India’s growth and development will propel SAARC by presenting an opportunity to neighbours to benefit from the process.
Instead of getting caught in the pointless politics of SAARC, India should create a web of bilateral relationships
India doesn’t need the South Asian Association for Region Cooperation (SAARC). India’s neighbours wanted the outfit so that they could collectively pin down their bigger neighbour, something they cannot do individually.
Why New Delhi plays ball with this is unfathomable, for given India’s size, geography and power, it can achieve bilaterally everything that SAARC can achieve multilaterally. From freer trade to open skies, from counter-terrorism cooperation to join management of environmental resources, it is far easier for New Delhi to work out a web of bilateral arrangements than to attempt a big multilateral negotiation. It is hard to make a case for SAARC on the grounds of efficiency and effectiveness of subcontinental cooperation. [See this from the archives] Moreover, there is a lot of slack in the domestic policy environment before the neighbourhood becomes a constraint to India’s growth.
Some argue that India needs SAARC as a regional geopolitical bloc, on the lines of ASEAN or even a European Union. To accept this would be to ignore the history of the subcontinent’s political map looks the way it does. No country in the subcontinent needs regional solidarity to counter foreign powers. On the contrary, every one of India’s neighbours needs a foreign power to counter India’s influence. The dream for a ‘South Asian Union’ on the lines of the European Union is absurd, because Partition and Bangladesh were expressions of desires against being part of a liberal, democratic, secular, plural state. In fact, the EU took five decades to move towards something like the Indian Union (which is what the Republic of India is).
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was off on the right footing when he invited leaders of the subcontinent’s states to his swearing in ceremony. That was an expression of how India can unilaterally act to bring together the subcontinent. The SAARC summit, on the other hand, is at best a waste of time, and worst a perpetuation of an old mistake.
Related Links: We are not South Asian; and if Maldives is a neighbour, why isn’t Indonesia?
…they stopped short of coming to blows
So much have we become accustomed to Dr Manmohan Singh delivering lollipops to his Pakistani ‘counterpart’ at sidelines of multilateral meetings that this time, in Thimphu, when all he agreed was that “the show must go on”, a surreptitious sigh of relief is excusable.
After the meeting, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao said that the “Prime Ministers held very good talks in a free and frank manner”. Actually that’s good to hear. “Free” probably means that there was disagreement on the agenda. “Frank” means that the events in the meeting ranged from debate, to disagreement, to a form of behaviour that stops short of actual violence against the counterpart (matter in inanimate objects, however, might get radically rearranged).
This meeting was unnecessary. As Polaris wrote, the Indian delegation should have told the meticulously Pakistanis who turned up in Bhutan to “take us to your leaders”.