From virtual conferencing to real leadership

New Delhi has a chance to step up the SAARC video conference — as its assertive expression to stabilise the region

Updated - March 17, 2020 12:16 am IST

Published - March 17, 2020 12:02 am IST

After lying moribund for years, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has suddenly acquired a new lease of life since last Sunday. Through a dramatic counter-intuitive initiative by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, SAARC , has become the ‘virtual’ platform through which leaders of the eight countries of our troubled region agreed to work together to combat unarguably the greatest immediate threat to the people: the COVID-19 health pandemic .

All eyes on India

The success of the Modi-SAARC initiative will largely depend on India — the dominant power of the region, in every sense. Once New Delhi demonstrates that it has the capacity, the political willingness to institutionalise and to lead a mutually beneficial cooperative regime in the region, Pakistan’s “churlish” behaviour will become marginal to SAARC. Various international relations theorists view this as a function of “hegemonic stability”.

What therefore is at test is India’s leadership, not Islamabad’s follies. The initial steps announced by Mr. Modi are laudable, including the proposal to set up the COVID-19 Emergency Fund for SAARC countries , with India making an initial non-trivial offering of $10 million; and the formation of a Rapid Response Team (of doctors, specialists, testing equipment and attendant infrastructure) to be put at the disposal of the SAARC, at this moment of grave peril.

But much more will need to be done by New Delhi to establish that the video conference was not a mere event, but the assertive expression of its new willingness to stabilise the region through cooperative mechanisms, for our common future, without being distracted by short-sighted disingenuous ploys of a troubled Pakistan or being put off by its grandstanding. This is a moment thus of a rare opportunity for India to establish its firm imprimatur over the region; and to secure an abiding partnership for our shared destiny.

Also read:India, Pak. enmity main reason for SAARC not prospering: Bangladesh Minister

The spark of South Asia

SAARC was born at a moment of hope in the 1980s; the idea was initiated by one of the most inscrutable leaders of the region, General Zia Ur Rehman of Bangladesh, who, met many of the other leaders personally and dispatched special envoys to the capitals of the countries of the region. Dhaka’s persistence resulted in the first summit of the seven leaders of the region in 1985. Afghanistan joined in 2007. In the nearly 35 years of its existence, even its champions will concede however that SAARC has, to put it euphemistically, not lived up to the promise of its founder.

South Asia is the world’s least integrated region; less than 5% of the trade of SAARC countries is within. A South Asian Free Trade Zone agreed on, in 2006, remains, in reality, a chimera. The last SAARC summit, scheduled to be held in Islamabad in November 2016, was postponed after the terrorist attacks in Uri; none has been held since then, and until Mr. Modi’s initiative, no major meeting had been planned. A quick look at some of the questions posed in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha on SAARC, in the last years, suggest that Indian MPs seek answers on why India is still a member of SAARC and on the strength of other organisations such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) that India is engaged with. Thus SAARC had become almost marginal to our collective consciousness.

Also read: Nepal pitches for informal SAARC summit

Bright spots

There have been some sunny moments in SAARC’s dismal and dysfunctional history. During the tenure of Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral, who had been fed a sumptuous diet of the possibilities of cooperation on the Track II circuit before he became Prime Minister, there was movement. At the Male Summit in 1997, for instance, a Group of Eminent Persons was set up to provide a vision for SAARC 2020. Equally, I.K. Gujral often confided that it was at Male that Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had told him in Punjabi: “I know you cannot give me Kashmir; and you know I cannot grab it from you; but let us just talk and move on.” But these moments of candour that could have injected practical common sense, remained few and far between.

The fadeout and a revival

The reasons for the failure of SAARC have been enumerated several times as well. Clearly, most of the smaller states and external players believe that the India-Pakistan conflict has undermined SAARC. Bilateral issues cannot be discussed in SAARC but since the organisation relies on the principle of unanimity for all major decisions, Pakistan has often undermined even the most laudable initiative lest it give India an advantage: relative gains by India are more important for Pakistan than the absolute gains it secures for itself. For India, Pakistan’s use of terror as an instrument of foreign policy has made normal business impossible.

Also read: Rajnath says SAARC’s full potential not utilised due to a single country

But the world is suddenly being transformed. Not since the influenza pandemic of the Spanish Flu of 1918 has South Asia’s health been more in danger. Laura Spinney’s masterly account of the Spanish Flu reminds us of the memoirs of the great poet, ‘Nirala’, Surya Kant Tripathi, and what a tragedy was inflicted even on ordinary people by the flu.

Nirala wrote : “I travelled to the riverbank in Dalmau and waited…[t]he Ganga was swollen with dead bodies. At my in-laws’ house, I learned that my wife [too] had passed away. This was the strangest time in my life..[m]y family disappeared in the blink of an eye.”

There is no doubt that the impact of COVID-19 will be unprecedented, in terms of those it targets and the way we live. It is too early to judge the consequences , but it will take years for the world to return to the old and familiar. Strategies to cope with this new insidious, scheming and diabolic strain of the coronavirus have to be dynamic and ad hoc. In the United Kingdom the idea of letting low-risk residents being infected by the virus as a way of generating immunity (the herding principle) seems to have been misplaced and disastrous . Containment and the possible prevention of community transmission are the only two principles that are firmly tested. If community transmission occurs and cannot be contained, the consequences will be calamitous. This is indeed a time for SAARC and the experts of the region to think and act together and India can lead this effort.

It is evident that Mr. Modi is an out-of-the box lateral thinker, especially on foreign policy. In 2014, Mr. Modi surprised the world by inviting all the SAARC leaders for his inauguration. In December 2015, he was even more audacious by almost living the dream of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh by spending his morning in Kabul, afternoon in Lahore and evening in Delhi. More important, the tragedy of COVID-19 may provide an opportunity for India to demonstrate its compassionate face to secure a region at peace with itself. India cannot afford to not to harvest this opportunity, after having sowed the seeds of a New South Asia.

Amitabh Mattoo is Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and Honorary Professor of International Relations at the University of Melbourne

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