News from New Delhi has it that India is dropping broad hints of its intention to ‘sabotage’ the already postponed Saarc summit in Islamabad. It may be recalled that the summit scheduled to be held in 2016 was postponed after Indian intention to ‘boycott’ it surfaced. The very future of this regional organisation now hangs in the balance.
Saarc, as a regional bloc, emerged ill-starred virtually from day one. The one fundamental precept relating to international groupings is that top priority is invariably accorded to strengthening of the moorings and establishing of the infrastructure. Only after the fundamentals have been suitably taken care of the attention is diverted towards what may be termed embellishments. Mentors of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation surprisingly turned every precept on its head.
Since its inception, Saarc has been engaged more in superficial ostentation, less in resolution of the impediments that hinder a fruitful regional integration. So many ancillary bodies have sprouted under its benign shade making it difficult to discern the original organism. One reason for this sad mix-up of priorities has probably been the general atmosphere of suspicion and distrust that has characterised the relations between the two biggest member states and the smaller states of the region.
When a regional organisation of this genre is set up, the initial step is invariably based on the concept of ‘notional equality’ of member states. Bilateral frictions and hang-ups are made subservient to the overall interests of the organisation, as whole, only then political differences are minimised by emphasising the commonality of interests. Asean is a case in point, where Indonesia — the largest member state — took the conscious policy decision to lower its profile so as not to give the small member states a feeling of having to deal with a ‘big brother’. Malaysia, too, played a positive role.
In Saarc’s case, the Indian establishment appears to have missed the opportunity to play a benign role. Due to (unfounded) fears of small state members ganging up against it, India made it a policy to deal with each neighbour individually on a bilateral basis and on its own terms. The two landlocked member states — Nepal and Bhutan — were singled out for some heavy-handed treatment. Sri Lanka had to contend with an insurgency that can hardly be called indigenous. The Maldives barely manages to keep its head above water.
Saarc summits and meetings, unfortunately, have been a missed opportunity for the member states’ leaders to settle regional issues of vital concern. It is true that the charter discourages references to ‘bilateral issues’, yet there are several issues that are no longer of purely bilateral nature and are crying out for solutions. Few of which are natural disasters; apportionment of water resources; sharing of energy resources; preservation of environment; poverty alleviation; education for all; and curbing extremism and terrorism.
Despite the imminent need to tackle such issues, nothing tangible has been achieved so far. If anything, more schisms than convergences have emerged over the years. Albeit, the one 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 played a pivotal role in the association’s somewhat erratic march through the minefield of South Asian politics. These states have perforce to manoeuvre within restrictive parameters, while giving evidence of their commitment to the principles and ideals of Saarc.
The leaders of the Saarc region would do well to take a good, hard look at the way the regional organisation is headed. If the present trend is not checked, there is growing fear that Saarc may be headed for a future that the regional powers that be and their leaders may live to regret in the times to come.
The writer is a former ambassador and ex-assistant secretary general of OIC