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Re-locating the Relevance of SAARC

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The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has been at the centre of continuous public attention recently. After the conclusion of the recent 18th SAARC summit in Nepal, the group was sought to be revived as a regional force at the Lima climate negotiations, as India sought to leverage alternatives to China’s potential desertion of the developing countries position on climate change, after the latter’s climate deal with the US. However, realizing the futility of the power of SAARC, India sought to align more with country groups which included Brazil and South Africa. This is not surprising. As was reflected in the outcome of the recent SAARC summit, and those which occurred over the years, SAARC remains little more than a symbol of regional cooperation rather than a substantive forum for bringing about change.

Over the years, SAARC has declared many grand initiatives in areas of food security, poverty alleviation, South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA), and charters on higher education, social issues, agriculture, energy and other areas. However, implementation in crucial areas has been tepid. Even during this summit, the eight members signed the formal Kathmandu Declaration towards strengthening energy trade, establishing a South Asian Economic Union, effectively implementing preferential trading practices under existing agreements like SAFTA as well as declarations in other areas. The summit also emphasized strengthening processes for monitoring implementation by member states, through periodic reviews and strengthening the Secretariat.

India was particularly satisfied with the outcome on the signing of the energy deal, which was being resisted by Pakistan, and was the only substantive agreement which was signed during the 18th summit. India, as usual, being a powerful regional player, was able to provide unilateral concessions in a lot of areas, such as trade, travel and visa, healthcare benefits and education and communication. However, apart from the energy cooperation agreement, it could not get Pakistan’s cooperation on other crucial agreements like the motor vehicles agreement and the railway linkages pact.

The failure of this ample vision of the SAARC to translate into outcomes has often been analyzed in terms of external institutional and inter-relational factors. A comparison with other regional models of international cooperation explains why the SAARC model is currently unworkable:

Lack of institutionalization – When compared with regional organizations like the EU, the ASEAN, the NAFTA and even, to an extent, the BRICS, SAARC appears to be an amateur in the game of international cooperation. This is because, on several fronts, these organizations are highly institutionalized and, therefore, able to translate decision-making into policies. Based on the experience of these organizations, it is clear that SAARC is lacking in the following basic factors: economic interdependency, powerful supranational bureaucracy and coordination with influential global non-state actors.

Persistent political deadlock and balance of power – Even preceding proper institutionalization is the lack of political consensus among members of the SAARC. SAARC could never evolve a model of multilateralism, like in the EU, that was divorced from the politics of bilateral relationships between its individual members. As a result, political consensus is often hampered by perennial Indo-Pak rivalry, or attempts by smaller SAARC members, which have resented India as an interventionist ‘big brother’, to leverage Chinese involvement in South Asia in order to counter India. Thus, the politics among SAARC member states has led to the kind of model of organization which is marked more by balance of power than cooperation, as members pursue their own interests.

Weak cultural exchange – One of the main reasons for the success of organizations like the EU and the ASEAN has been propulsion by a shared history or culture, which has strengthened intra-regional nationalism among people of the various member states. In case of South Asia, the situation is completely different. India has not been able to provide leadership to undo the history of division between India and Pakistan and conflicts between Bangladesh and Pakistan. Despite the racial, cultural and linguistic convergences which are stronger than the divergences between their political systems, South Asian unity remains weak.

It is necessary to realize precisely this last factor before any kind of substantive South Asian regional political cooperation can be made feasible. India should continue to play a key role for the realization of this kind of a unity. Indian government has been taking steps in the right direction till now. The hope for SAARC was first revived during Modi’s swearing-in ceremony when he laid the foundations of his pro-South Asia ‘neighbours first’ foreign policy. By providing unilateral concessions in the recent 18th summit and pressurizing Pakistan to sign the energy deal, the Indian government has proven that it has the political will to go a long way in South Asia.
However, before such political cooperation can be realized, we need to recognize the weakness of the current approach. The SAARC ‘model’ has been based and analyzed for too long in the context of external institutional, comparative and political factors. However, attempts to impose these criteria on SAARC will not come to fruition unless the cultural and social spirit which precedes these external mechanical institutions is first realized. It is here that India needs to play a non-aggressive, apolitical role in developing real cultural relations with the neighbouring countries. It should not allow itself to be hindered by Pakistan’s obstructionist approach and should itself adopt a less confrontationist attitude towards China, which is on the verge of becoming an important external player in SAARC politics.

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