KathmanduYou could almost discern a tinge of hope for the regional grouping in Narendra Modi’s December 8 SAARC Day message. “SAARC has made progress, but more needs to be done,” he wrote. In a clear allusion to Pakistan, he added, “Our efforts for greater collaboration have repeatedly been challenged with threats and acts of terrorism.”
Such an environment, he continues, impedes “our shared objective of realizing the full potential of SAARC”. Realizing the full potential of SAARC? The pick of words is odd coming from someone who supposedly wants the regional body dead. He offers more morsels of hope: “SAARC, set up as an organization to build a connected and integrated South Asia, aims at promoting the development and progress of all countries in the region.” Again, why talk up SAARC’s goals if he is determined to ditch it?
When I put this question to Keshav Prasad Bhattarai of the Nepal Institute for Strategic Studies (NISS), he had a curious reply: “What India is trying to do is turn SAARC into another BIMSTEC.” How so?
“How else do we understand a SAARC minus Pakistan that India seems to be pushing for?” he asks. “But it is laughable to imagine a SAARC that has Afghanistan but not Pakistan.” Bhattarai seems to be on to something. In the past few years the Modi government has invested a lot in trying to isolate Pakistan, both regionally and globally. Now, with the new Indian policy of welcoming only non-Muslim immigrants from India’s neighboring countries, Modi is putting down a marker.
The way anti-Muslim hysteria is being whipped up in India, it’s hard to imagine Modi adopting an accommodating line on Pakistan. The goal of the recent statement on SAARC Day could thus have been to hammer in the point that the regional grouping could have done wonders if not for Pakistan.
Nepal is invested in SAARC, having played an important role in its establishment and as the host of its secretariat. Nepal is also the current SAARC chair. But are we flogging a dead horse? Even when India and Pakistan were on talking terms, how effective was the regional grouping?
Without SAARC, India and Pakistan will have one fewer platform to talk with each other. The only other regional grouping both are members of is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. After all, during the last SAARC Summit in Kathmandu, Modi had felt the need to meet Nawaz Sharif secretly. The less the two nuclear powers talk, the deeper will be the suspicions, and the greater the chances of unrest in the region.
As things are, with India as the fulcrum of South Asia, SAARC does not seem to have a viable future. Perhaps the best we can hope is for it to continue as a platform for Tier 2 diplomacy. An Indian government not drunk on partisan Hindu support would realize that India’s economic rise will remain stymied so long as tensions with Pakistan persist. South Asia minus Pakistan is a geographical impossibility. You cannot wish away a country of 200 million, however much you hate it.