The big question after the March 15 video conference between the top leaders of eight SAARC member states is: Will Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invoking of SAARC to address the common coronavirus threat lead to the holding of the long-postponed 19th Summit of the regional body? Even if the deferred Islamabad summit cannot be held, does it at least signal India’s renewed interest in SAARC, a forum it has been ditching in favor of BIMSTEC in recent times?
There were multiple factors are play behind the video conference. One, India could have realized that the strategy of isolating Pakistan was not working as big powers like China, the US and Russia continue to humor the Pakistani leadership. By not talking to Islamabad, New Delhi was putting itself in a difficult spot, none more so than in Afghanistan as the Americans slowly draw down their forces there. Two, the Indian leadership surely realized that so long as there are remnants of Covid-19 in Pakistan, India could never be assured it is safe from the virus.
Three, and perhaps most important, was the domestic factor. India has in recent times been mired in a religious strife between Hindus and Muslims over a recently passed legislation that discriminates against the Muslims. This did Modi’s image some harm. By holding the video conference where he projected himself as the undisputed leader of South Asia, Modi could reassert his leadership credentials. It was perfect optics.
But what about SAARC then? According to Nishchal N. Pandey, Director of the Center for South Asian Studies in Kathmandu, the video conference has renewed hope that the stalled SAARC process would be “reinvigorated and we will soon see a SAARC Summit in Islamabad.” Not so fast, says Ashok Mehta, an old Nepal hand in India. Modi, says Mehta, now wants to firmly establish the Hindu agenda and “is in no mood to talk to Pakistan. Similarly, Pakistan is also not keen on talking to India either.”
The absence of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan from the video conference also signaled that Islamabad is hesitant to accept India’s leadership of South Asia. Perhaps it sees no reason to do so when it has the full support of China, its all-weather friend, and continued utility for the US and Russia. SAARC can wait.