G IVEN the recent and not so recent developments in the region, it may well be in order to take a good look over the shoulder at what may be in store for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). With the obvious change in the nuances of India’s foreign policy vis-à-vis its neighbours, it was but natural that its shock-wave would be felt in the Regional Organisation as well. The unfortunate decision of the Indian Administration to sabotage the erstwhile Islamabad SAARC Summit was uncomfortably close to a death blow to the future prospects of Regional grouping. The subsequent precipitate actions of re-elected Modi administration too have not done future prospects of SAARC any good! The one fundamental precept related to International Groupings is that top priority is invariably accorded to strengthening the moorings and establishing of the infrastructure. It is only after these fundamentals have been suitably taken care of that attention is diverted towards what may be termed as embellishments and trimmings. The question of expansion beyond the strict regional regime, if at all considered necessary, is relegated to the lowest priority. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has surprisingly turned out to be the singular exception. Ever since its inception, SAARC has been engaged more in superficial ostentation rather than tackling the basic impediments that stand in the way of regional integration. For one thing, so many ancillary bodies have sprouted under its benign shade that it is now difficult to discern the original organism, such as it was envisaged.
One reason for this sad mix-up of priorities has probably been the general atmosphere of suspicion and distrust that has continued to characterize the relations between the largest member state and the smaller states of the region. History tells us that whenever a Regional Organisation of this genre is set up, the first evolutionary steps are invariably based on the concept of ‘notional equality’ of the member states. Bilateral frictions and hang-ups are generally made subservient to the overall interests of the Organization, as well as that of the region as a whole. Advantage is then taken of the favourable ambiance created by the commonality of interests to minimize the political differences among member states, preferably to settle them once for all. The experience of ASEAN is a case in point, where Indonesia – by far the biggest member state – took a conscious policy decision to maintain a low profile so as not to give the smaller member states a feeling of having to deal with a ‘big brother’. For reasons best known to only to itself, the Indian establishment missed no opportunity to throw its weight around to browbeat the smaller member states. Possibly due to (unfounded?) fears that the small state members might gang up against it, ‘Big Brother’ India made no secret of its intention to deal with each neighbour individually and on its own terms. The two landlocked member states – Nepal and Bhutan – were particularly singled out for some heavy-handed treatment. Sri Lanka had to contend with an insurgency that can hardly be called entirely indigenous. Maldives barely managed to keep its head above the waters, once again thanks to Indian overtones. Pakistan too has continued to be on the receiving end. On the economic front, the Organization has made little or no headway. Despite the hullabaloo about the importance of SAFTA, India has made no attempt to eliminate the hidden non-tariff barriers in its bilateral trade with member states. With all the talk about free trade and CBMs, India made little effort to ensure a level playing field in its economic and commercial dealings with its SAARC partners.
SAARC meetings should, and could, have been occasions for the leaders of the Member States to bend their energies to settle issues of vital concern to the region as a whole. Nothing of sort has happened. It is true that Charter discourages references to ‘bilateral issues’. But, then, there are several issues that are no longer of purely bilateral nature and which are crying out for solutions. Among them are issues relating to – Natural Disasters; – Apportionment of Water Resources; -Sharing of Energy Resources;- Preservation of Environment; – Poverty Alleviation; – Education for All; and – Extremism and Terrorism Despite the imminent need to tackle these issues, nothing tangible appears to have been achieved thus far. If anything, there appear to be today more schisms than convergences. If one looks back at the record of the fruits of the past SAARC summits, one finds precious little that one can latch on to. The only noteworthy element that stands out is the extremely positive and constructive contribution of the smaller member states. Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Bhutan have more than pulled their weight in the Association’s somewhat erratic march through the minefield of South Asian politics. These states had perforce to manoeuvre within very restrictive parameters and yet they have given ample evidence of their commitment to the principles and ideals of SAARC. The same cannot be said about the larger (and more influential) member states. The leaders of the SAARC region states would do well to spare time to have a good, hard look at the way the Regional Organisation is shaping out to be. If the present trend is not checked, there is growing fear that SAARC may be headed for a future that regional powers, that be, may live to regret in the times to come.
— The writer is a former ambassador and former assistant secretary general of OIC