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Updated: April 8, 2014 00:00 IST

A case for economic integration in S.Asia

N. Sathiya Moorthy
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Stability and Growth in South Asia: Edited by Sumita Kumar; Institute for Defence
Studies, New Delhi/Pentagon Press, 206, Peacock Lane, Shahpur Jat New Delhi-110049. Rs. 995.
Stability and Growth in South Asia: Edited by Sumita Kumar; Institute for Defence Studies, New Delhi/Pentagon Press, 206, Peacock Lane, Shahpur Jat New Delhi-110049. Rs. 995.

“I dream of a day, while retaining our respective national identities, one can have breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul. That is how my forefathers lived. That is how I want our grandchildren to live,” Sanjaya Baru, former Media Advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, has quoted his one-time master as telling the elite audience at the FICCI Annual General Meeting at New Delhi in January 2008.

At present Director for Geo-economics and Strategy at the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), Baru has quoted Mr. Singh in a chapter on ‘India’s Role in the Economic Re-integration of the Indian Sub-continent’ in a book, Stability and Growth in South Asia, a compilation of papers presented at the two-day, sixth annual South Asia Conference, organised by the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies (IDSA), New Delhi, in November 2012.

The fact that the IDSA, originally given to studying defence and strategic issues should be addressing economic issues and cooperation, particularly in South Asia, should be a pointer to the shape of things — that India and the Indian sub-continent cannot ignore economy and economic integration, just as they cannot afford to overlook political and geo-strategic co-existence and cooperation.

Barring a solitary chapter, numbering 21 in all, “Focus on Youth Unrest”, referring to militancy in the majority Sinhala and minority Tamil communities in Sri Lanka of the recent past, every other chapter — hence the papers presented at the seminar — is either current or futuristic, thus making the contents as contemporary as can be. It is as much a mind-teaser for the knowledgeable as it is informative for the uninitiated.

Prime Minister Singh referred to his forefathers’ generations, which could not have visualised the possibility of a round-way air-trip from one end of South Asia to another, with breakfast, lunch and tea-breaks in different national capitals, and still be able to return home for dinner the same day. Singh has also referred to his grandchildren’s generation, implying that the political barriers and national boundaries of the present-day should and hopefully would give way to ‘one seamless connectivity’ (that he had mentioned elsewhere) between adversarial nations in the neighbourhood (namely, India and Pakistan, in this case).

Missed opportunity

Yet, what has Singh’s generation done? Successive Indian Prime Ministers in post-reforms India, when the nation also re-discovered at least some of its economic strengths from a forgotten past, never even attempted to do a round-trip of the larger sub-continent, that too not within a day — but spread out even over a year or two. Oftentimes, their eyes continued to be set away from South Asia, to the rest of Asia and beyond, as used to be the case with their predecessors, who however had greater urgency and justification to do so — in terms of the ‘Cold War’ global matrix and India’s very own dependence on the West and the East alike for aid and assistance, across-the-board.

India and South Asia may have thus missed a golden opportunity for the nations of the region to integrate better in economic terms. There was/is little realisation in India that any nation to make a mark in the global arena would have to carry immediate neighbours with it, and obtain immediate acceptance from them, as their collective conscience in regional and global affairs.

The U.S. did it through peaceful means, the erstwhile Soviet Union jack-booted obedience and cracked up in the process, the European Union and the ASEAN, for instance, have been doing so collectively. It is not that those nations and regions did not have inherent problems, some of them insurmountable still. Yet, they have managed to project a collective image, and promote collective bargaining power. South Asia as a region and SAARC as an institution have failed themselves.

In the post-Cold War-reforms era, too, India has continued to look at the West, may be more than the East — with adequate time not spared for the immediate neighbourhood. For historical reasons, India is a pre-occupation for all other countries of the region — India is their friend and foe, main trading-partner, tourist destination and supplier — all rolled into one, and more. It is more visible and immediate — whether love or hatred — in the case of their peoples, whereas there is little or no understanding of those feelings in India and among Indians. Hence, there is no question of acknowledgement of the same, to the same degree — though greater should have been the Indian reciprocation, whether personal or official, given its capabilities in the political and economic level, and dependence at times in geo-strategic terms.

Divided into three parts, dwelling respectively on ‘Political Stability’ and ‘Economic Growth’ in each of the nation under study — SAARC + Myanmar — the third part, “Stability and Growth in South Asia” is what the book is really all about. With contributions from well-known academics or administrators, mostly from the respective countries, the book as a whole gives a full understanding of what South Asia is all about in terms of political situation and economic possibilities.

However, as a compendium for triggering the intended processes, the book falls short on two specific counts — the latter being the bane of most such works, whether seminars, books or both. Straightaway, the seminar/book has shied away from discussing geo-strategic and military intentions and ambitions, suspicions and mistrust among the nations in the sub-continent, as a part of the larger process involving politics and economics as well. Without frankness of the kind that is required, with academics playing a key role in facilitating such integration, whatever time-limit set by or for them, political and/or economic stability would not be easily achieved, now or ever.

Two and more important, while discussing India’s role in facilitating the process of political stability and economic growth in South Asia, the authors (who were also paper-presenters at the seminar) have not come up with any specific points for effecting integration, the learning curve for one to know more from the other, in whatever field and sector. Nor have many of them discussed the past attempts and continuing processes in this regard, to prescribe for the future.

Thus, each of the chapter is an in-depth analysis of the situation prevailing in each of those nations, barring of course the third part of the book, where some deliberate attempts have been made by the contributors to integrate some, but not all. As a continuing process, future seminars of the type could consider focussing on such exchanges and integration projects and processes, which will be of immense help and contribution to the ‘grandchildren’s generation’.

Otherwise, as Prof S.D. Muni has pointed out in his ‘Summing Up’ to the chapter, “The Uneasy Couple in South Asia”, “We are still far from understanding the real nature of the relationship between political stability and economic growth.” This publication for once makes an earnest attempt to educate one another in South Asia about the opportunities and challenges, though more distance needs to be covered before a satisfactory way out could be found. Implementation would still have to wait.

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