SAARC’s make or break moment

The game of one-upmanship by India and Pakistan, the two leading countries of SAARC, is likely to do immense harm to the cause of the poverty-ridden South Asian region, where concerted efforts at regional cooperation could be crucial in shaping its future development

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:29 pm IST

Published - December 05, 2014 02:01 am IST

The most tangible outcome of the 18th session of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit was the agonising wait for the “will they, won’t they” last-minute >ice-breaker at a Nepalese resort between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, leaders of the two nuclear-armed nations. It resulted in a rather contrived handshake and the exchange of bonhomie.

Inevitably, this raises some serious questions about the future of the 30-year-old regional cooperation organisation. Will it ever come of age or, as it seems more likely, will it die prematurely? Although the gesture sent a huge sigh of relief across the subcontinent living in the shadows of a looming, if not inadequately perceived, nuclear Armageddon, it has all but dashed the hopes of a quarter of the world’s humanity to live in peace and prosperity.

Legacy of problems The people of the South Asian region find themselves hostage to the intransigence of the elite of the two most populous countries of the region. Based on defence expenditure and human development indicators of the two when compared to the rest of the member nations, they seem more interested in competing in an arms race (in this they receive the top scores; Pakistan in nuclear and India in conventional arms) in the region than in a race to save the lives of and improve the living conditions of more than half of their populations. Ironically, these indicators in many of the least developed countries of the region are much better than those in India and Pakistan.

While individual SAARC countries, especially their affluent sections, may have done well, the region as a whole continues to be mired in poverty, disease, illiteracy, ignorance and religious, ethnic and communal hatred — the deeply-imprinted signatures of our colonial heritage that the newly elected national governments had promised to remove at the time of Independence. Instead of the eradication of most of these unwelcome tendencies and characteristics, it is disappointing to see their resurgence in most countries of the region.

If India is perceived to behave like a hegemon and Pakistan as obstructionist in India’s ambitions to play a legitimate role in world affairs, SAARC may atrophy into smaller sub-regional groupings

The intractable problem of Kashmir — which the British left as a parting gift to the two estranged nations — gave the ruling elites of India and Pakistan the excuse to engage in a hostile arms race and deflect their attention from the most pressing problems they needed to address after gaining freedom from colonial rule. Of course, it may be a bit unfair to blame the British for everything — even in Kashmir — that went wrong after they left. However, the fact that military command/control remained in the hands of British generals in both countries for some time, even after Independence, does create suspicions in this regard. Undoubtedly, India’s record in complicating, and its unwillingness to amicably resolving, the issue in a spirit of good neighbourliness is much murkier than Pakistan’s, where the dominant role of its military and intelligence agencies in strategic decision-making has been the main cause of a lack of trust between the two countries, often leading to cross-border proxy wars and violence.

In recent years, however, there has been discernible progress in the civilian government’s attempt to reclaim lost space in policy-making, especially in the fields of security and foreign affairs. Pakistan’s transition to democracy is still a work in progress, rather than a mission accomplished. A decrease in tensions with India and some tangible progress on a mutually acceptable solution to the Kashmir problem could greatly ease Pakistan’s journey towards a stable democratic polity. Such a development could also allay Indian fears about Pakistani irredentist misadventures and terrorist attacks, such as were witnessed in Mumbai six years ago and with its anniversary coinciding with the inauguration of the SAARC summit in Kathmandu, perhaps, accounting for Mr. Modi’s sombre visage during the inaugural session.

One-upmanship Apart from the heavy burden of past animosity and hatred, both countries have also had to deal with the burden of discontent of the common man or the aam aadmi over a continuing deterioration in the ethics of the political class and its abettors in the bureaucracy and the consequential degeneration in the delivery of essential services to the general public. Mr. Modi, who ruled Gujarat for over a decade, found it expedient to adopt a populist platform to become a national leader. He was soon facing pressure from his hard-core base to confront his Pakistani counterpart and to punish him for raising the Kashmir issue at the United Nations and for the misdemeanour of the Pakistan envoy in Delhi in contacting Kashmiri leaders, something which was permitted by the Manmohan Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee governments. In a similar way, Mr. Imran Khan in his 100-day dharna in Islamabad has been breathing fire at Mr. Sharif for the haste in which he had accepted Mr. Modi’s invitation to travel to Delhi and for not raising the Kashmir issue with him. Mr. Sharif’s sycophantic cheerleaders in the media had also cautioned him “not to bend backwards to offer a handshake or smile” to Mr. Modi during the SAARC Summit.

This point scoring by the two major leaders of SAARC is likely to do immense harm to the cause of the poverty-ridden South Asian region, where serious efforts at regional cooperation could play a key role in shaping its future development. When SAARC was established three decades ago in Dhaka, Bangladesh, it was hoped that these problems could be better addressed at a regional level, helping countries to progress and protect themselves from positive and negative externalities and foster regional interdependence. It is true that in the last 30 years, SAARC has hardly achieved the kind of dynamism that similar organisations have produced in Europe, Latin America, East and Southeast Asia by creating well-integrated and connected regions. But this has been mainly because of the continuing spat between the two largest countries in the region and their reluctance to bury the hatchet and move on.

Need for unity However, even the slow pace with which SAARC has moved is preferable to there being no regional framework to work under. In an age when the destinations of global capital and technology are determined by the degree of integration of the region where they are located, including the availability of infrastructure and access to a pool of skilled labour with low transfer costs and ancillary industries, regional cooperation becomes a positive sum, win-win game. Notwithstanding its other failures, the 18th SAARC summit did support a historic accord for electricity sharing through a regional grid, which should greatly relieve shortages in many a member country.

Both India and Pakistan have displayed increasing impatience with the imperfections of the SAARC process, which is undisputedly moving at a snail’s pace, largely because of their arrogance and intransigence. If India is perceived to behave like a hegemon and Pakistan as obstructionist in India’s ambitions to play a legitimate role in world affairs commensurate with its achievements and capabilities, SAARC may atrophy into smaller sub-regional groupings, which would be much less beneficial to the region as a whole. It would be a pity if this happens and the baby is thrown out with the bathwater. That would mean that South Asia would never be able to overcome its socio-economic dystopia and become part of the Asian century spearheaded by China and East Asia. Therefore, it is imperative that the two countries get their bilateral act together and let the underdogs in the entire region reap the benefits of regional cooperation.

In a way, India and Pakistan are facing a moment of truth, akin to (or the reverse of) the 1947 Independence moment in their history. As many retrospective histories of that moment have shown, those who had to take the decision whether to divide or to keep India united, seem to have done so in a rather hasty manner, without fully weighing the pros and cons of Partition. Similarly, any decision to dismantle or dilute SAARC for the expediency or convenience of the two countries may prove costly and irreversible.

(S.M. Naseem was a professor of economics at Quaid-I-Azam University, Islamabad, and director of the Development Planning Division, ESCAP, Bangkok. E-mail: )

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