The SAARC gambit

India’s decision to pull out of the SAARC summit in Islamabad this November, with Afghanistan, Bhutan and Bangladesh deciding to follow suit, effectively draws the curtain on what was increasingly becoming a farce. Since the previous Nepal summit, Pakistan has blocked all protocols to better link the region, while India has pursued a “SAARC minus Pakistan” plan to push through with agreements it is keen on. Meetings in the run-up to Islamabad have been overshadowed by ongoing India-Pakistan tensions for months now. Basic courtesies were set aside by both countries after the Pathankot attack. Islamabad dropped any plans to send a representative to India to formally extend an invitation to the summit, as is the custom. Home Minister Rajnath Singh was given a mixed welcome by his Pakistani hosts during the Home Ministers’ meeting in Islamabad in August, prompting Finance Minister Arun Jaitley to cancel his visit for the subsequent SAARC Finance Ministers’ meeting. Afghanistan and Bangladesh too had downgraded their participation in these meetings because of their anger with Pakistan on its continued support to terror groups in the respective countries. Uri proved to be the final straw, especially in view of Pakistan’s refusal to even issue a statement condemning the attack, galvanising India to reach out to other SAARC member-countries in an effort to “diplomatically isolate” Pakistan. But Sri Lanka and the Maldives, and Nepal, the acting SAARC Chair, have kept out of the boycott.

The Modi government cannot claim much more than a pyrrhic victory for the SAARC process getting derailed in this manner. With one-fifth of the world’s population, South Asia is home to two-fifths of the world’s poor. It has abysmally low intra-regional trade. It was precisely to work around bilateral tensions in the subcontinent, especially between its two biggest members, and to make space for discussion on common issues such as trade, infrastructure, sustainable development and poverty alleviation, that SAARC was set up. The founding principle was that together South Asia had a better chance of fighting its shared ills, an idea that held the group together for decades in the face of intermittent regional tensions. Of course, this is not the first time that a SAARC summit has been postponed. But given the prevailing environment of deep mistrust and tension, it is unlikely that the summit will be rescheduled to take place in the near future. This is something that will cause serious damage to the multilateral process and raise even more questions about the future and relevance of SAARC.

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