SAARC turning 30, Modi is striking right notes and isolating Pakistan

SAARC- South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation started in 1985 at Dhaka, with headquarters at Kathmandu having 7 South Asian nations as members ( currently 8 full-time members, Afghanistan was added in 2005) meets on an average once in every 18-20 months, with a different theme for every summit, this time the 18th Summit in Kathmandu, it was with a motto “Deeper integration for Peace and Prosperity”.

SAARC is touted as an important economic and geopolitical organization of the world, with many countries showing interest in it and are applying for observer status in SAARC. Why not, its importance can’t be ignored, after all, it houses two nations with nuclear power and not yet signatory to Nuclear Proliferation Treaty and Clinton once called South Asian region, as the most dangerous place on earth for the same reason. (States with observer status include Australia,China, the European Union, Iran, Japan,Mauritius,Myanmar, South Korea and the United States.)

Also the potential of SAARC to achieve is tremendous,  the nations of SAARC are rich in resources, have good demographic dividends, more importantly, they have challenging problems to solve (Terrorism, Poverty, Unemployment, drug trafficking and of women).  SAARC is also one of the least integrated regions economically speaking, which means that the potential of the region remains unexploited in that front too.

But so far I don’t remember reading anything on the achievements of SAARC, nor a simple google search with keywords “Achievements of SAARC” show good results. Unfortunately,but yes, looks like SAARC summits have just been a gala affair so far and nothing substantial has been achieved to boast of , SAARC has just been a talking shop, moreover it has done more bad to India than good, India has got a tag of “big-brother” for meddling in internal affairs of other countries. Thanks to poor diplomacy by our previous leaders.

Though SAARC Charter is clear that bilateral issues cannot be brought up in any forum of the association, I personally feel, unless the hostile equations between countries are resolved, there can’t be any progress made in SAARC. Until recently, Nepal said India showed big brother bossy attitude; no point in talking about India-Pak relations we all know how murky it is; Afghan-Pak relations ain’t any better; Congress regime in India didn’t take much steps to improve the relations with Sri Lanka either, thanks to regional pressure from Tamil Nadu. India Bangladesh relations have been strained. There is absolute trust deficit among the big nations of SAARC, what can be achieved if there is such infighting? Moreover, except India, rest of the States of SAARC are extremely under-developed and dependent on external assistance.

The belief is that either India has neglected its neighbors or has been insensitive and overbearing, leading to their alienation and consequent opportunities for external powers to intervene at the cost of India’s interests. So,the foremost priority for India with neighbors should be to shed-off its big-brother tag and assume the role of elder brother. While, that’s what the most foreign policy columnists have been saying, and no one expected Modi to do it, for his relative inexperience in foreign policy for he’s new to national politics. Modi’s flair for foreign diplomacy has come off as a shocker to one and all.

  1. Modi began by reaching out to the neighbors, but in a manner not anticipated. He invited all the SAARC leaders to his swearing-in, with the intention no doubt to signal that his elevation to power would usher in a new era of South Asian relations, that the clear victory in elections of a supposedly nationalist party did not denote a more muscular policy towards neighbors and that, on the contrary, India intended to work together with them to move the whole region forward towards peace and prosperity. This gesture had most meaning for India-Pakistan relations, and Nawaz Sharif’s decision to attend the swearing-in was “rewarded” with the announcement of Foreign Secretary level talks between the two countries. But Pakistan being Pakistan, they met the separatists leader in J&K despite Indian FS asking not to do so.
  2. Continuing the emphasis on the neighbourhood, Modi chose Bhutan as the first country to visit in June 2014. That was a great gesture and totally made sense as Bhutan is the only neighbor that has not played an external card against us or politically resisted building ties of mutual benefit.
  3. His address to the Nepalese parliament brought about unanimous appreciation from the Nepali media, Indian and world’s foreign policy columnists alike. He handled sensitive issues with expertise and played the cultural and religious card deftly. Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi enthralled Nepal by his visit
  4. In August Modi played another Master stroke by asking ISRO to make a SAARC satellite, as India’s advantage lies in the cost effectiveness of its high performance satellite systems. A dedicated SAARC satellite will leverage space diplomacy and further Indian interests in the immediate neigbhourhood. It might even bring in some business from the neighboring nations for our Space agency. According to Modi, this satellite can be an Indian “gift to the neighbor”. Indeed, Modi’s commitment should be a starting point for ISRO to initiate discussions to get inputs on the specific needs of the South Asian nations in terms of the satellite based services they are keen on having. By all means, a satellite that India could fund and build for regular use by South Asian neighbors is an idea worth pursuing. Needless to say, this satellite will encase the long standing experience of ISRO in exploiting the advances of space technology for “down to earth applications”. On another front, a SAARC satellite could to some extent weaken the punch of Chinese space diplomacy in the countries located in India’s immediate neighbourhood. (Read Pakistan)
  5. At the Kathmandu SAARC summit in November 2014, Modi encouraged neighbors to benefit from opportunities provided by India’s growth, promised a special funding vehicle overseen by India to finance infrastructure projects in the region and announced India’s readiness to develop a satellite specifically for the region by 2016. He warned at the Kathmandu summit that regional integration will proceed with all or without some, which suggested that if Pakistan did not cooperate, others could go ahead without it. 18th SAARC Summit – Narendra Modi’s SpeechModi proposes SAARC travel card, special purpose facility
  6. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Bangladesh in June 2014. A very notable development is the approval of the Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh approved by the Indian parliament in May 2015. And subsequently after Bangladesh, she has been on official visit to the all the SAARC member nations except Pakistan.
  7. In his recent visit to Bangladesh after Parliament approved Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh, Modi addressed to them in Dhaka university, where he said SAARC was keen to push for connectivity, and easy travel. “But everyone is not Bangladesh,” he said, referring to India’s western neighbor Pakistan, which sabotaged a SAARC powergrid project and a Motor Vehicles agreement at the SAARC summit in Kathmandu last November.  Modi takes jibes at Pakistan over scuttling SAARC connectivity, FCN.

Furthermore, if Modi could promote trade SAFTA which was signed in 2006, where the fob as of 2013 end stood at $3 billion, it will further help integrate the parties involved by creation of jobs. Another thing that he could he improve South Asian University set up in New Delhi sponsored by all the SAARC nations through more number of undergraduate and post graduate courses, it would help in integration.

Modi geared up to achieve a strengthened, well integrated SAARC through his Soft power show and mindful tactics,  means a stronger Indian role in it, which is odious to a Pakistan that is obsessed with countering Indian “hegemony” in South Asia. Pakistan will be reduced to its true importance if it ceases to confront India, which is why it will continue its confrontational policies, like it did in Kathmandu Summit, like it is doing in Kashmir by meeting Separatist leaders, and getting closer to China through Economic corridor. It isn’t realizing that it is being cornered in its own neighborhood.

But, the next SAARC Summit i.e., 19th is scheduled to be held at Pakistan, it will be interesting to see how Pakistan is going to react to India’s advancements, esp with Modi determined to getting other SAARC members on his side by then.

(P.S: This is my first write-up on international relations, do share your reviews and suggestions.)

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