India silent on Pakistan’s hijacking of SAARC

Maturity may be mistaken for weakness

After long years of what was effectively cold storage, the SAARC process was revived by Vajpayee’s decision to attend the SAARC summit in Islamabad earlier this year. To sustain the momentum and move forward on the tremendous number of issues on the SAARC plate, conventional wisdom would have dictated that it would be prudent not to take up any new contentious issues with a potential to disrupt the newfound momentum.

Yet, Pakistan did just that during the SAARC foreign ministers’ meeting in Islamabad this week.

Even before SAARC could get going with its existing members, Pakistan raised the issue of admitting Afghanistan and China, the latter being a move to ‘counter-balance’ Indian influence in the grouping. Prime Minister Shujaat Hussain went so far as to invite a visiting Chinese delegation to a dinner held in honour of the visiting Indian foreign minister. Expanding the grouping is an important step, but this can only be taken after the existing members have reconciled to working together in the first place. Even older, more mature groupings like ASEAN put in a lot of thought before admitting countries like Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, and with mixed results.

Musharraf then raised the issue of using SAARC as a platform for resolving bilateral disputes. As the Hindustan Times puts it, this is but a thinly veiled attempt for countries to gang up against India, for more members share borders with India than with each other. The ASEAN example shows that the prudent way to move forward larger regional interests would be to avoid using the forum to settle bilateral scores.

Clearly, Pakistan has executed some very adroit manoeuvres in picking out items designed to either neutralise or isolate India in SAARC. Natwar Singh’s silence may be described as ‘maturity’ but it may not be prudent to allow Pakistan to get away with a diplomatic equivalent of a backstab; for it was Vajpayee’s statesmanship that not only pulled Pakistan out of the international dog-house but also rescued SAARC from dying a quiet death. Shujaat Hussain, Pakistan’s seat-warming Prime Minister even re-introduced talk of UN resolutions in reference to Kashmir. It was Musharraf’s public renounciation of this position that had convinced Vajpayee to visit Islamabad in the first place.

India should shape its diplomatic response in highlighting that movement on SAARC’s development agenda will be jeopardised by Pakistan’s hijacking of the group’s mandate. And should this happen, the blame for this rests squarely on Pakistan’s shoulders.

Update: The Indian Express writes that Pakistan has been stonewalling on SAARC’s trade agenda while pushing its political agenda.