India is Adrift in SAARC and How!

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Not long ago, India was seen as a natural rising power in South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region. It was the de facto leader of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). It had built on its historical and cultural ties with Nepal. It enjoyed traditional goodwill and influence in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. It had made investments worth billions of dollars in Afghanistan and cultivated vibrant ties with the post-Taliban stakeholders in Kabul. It committed itself to multilateralism and the Central Asian Connectivity Project, with Iran being its gateway. It was competing and cooperating with China at the same time, while the long border between the two countries remained largely peaceful.

Former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh recently recalled that P V Narasimha Rao made efforts to improve the relationship with our neighbours including China, and India had signed the South Asian Preferential Trade Agreement along with SAARC countries.

Speaking at the first SAARC Summit in Dhaka in 1985, then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi described the establishment of SAARC as an act of faith. Cut to the present: India is perhaps facing its gravest national security crisis in 20 years. The Indo-China border saw violent clashes last month, leading to fatalities for the first time in 45 years. SAARC is out of joint. Nepal has turned hostile having adopted a new map and revived border disputes with India. Sri Lanka has tilted towards China, which is undertaking massive infrastructure projects in the Indian Ocean Island. Bangladesh is clearly miffed at the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. When Afghanistan is undergoing a major transition, India is out of the multi-party talks.

British author Humphrey Hawksley referring to the South Asian regional bloc said, “India is losing influence in Nepal and Bhutan which should have been within its arc of influence. It has failed to create a working regional institution out of SAARC”.

SAARC has remained in a limbo for almost three-and-a-half years since Modi decided not to attend the group’s 19th summit in November 2016. New Delhi had opted out of the summit to protest a series of terror attacks targeting security forces in India by outfits based in Pakistan. With all the other SAARC nations rallying behind India, Pakistan was forced to postpone the summit indefinitely. The regional organisation has since been in an impasse.

“Undoing SAARC summit instead of undoing Pakistan within the SAARC” Manish Tewari had commented in 2016, “Is scrapping the SAARC summit the answer? Couldn’t India, instead, have explored hosting a SAARC summit minus Pakistan on the issue of terrorism? After all, there is a 1987 convention of a SAARC meet against terrorism. The fact a member nation itself is now exporting terror should have been used by India for hosting such a summit.”

Recently, India set up a SAARC Covid-19 Emergency Fund with an initial contribution of $10 million. Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Maldives and Nepal followed suit. Pakistan also pledged its contribution after much dilly-dallying.  Senior Congress leader P Chidambaram said that India’s video conference with other SAARC nations over coronavirus pandemic has “left us no wiser”.

On the other hand, months after India held a SAARC meet over the COVID-19 pandemic, China convened a rare quadrilateral dialogue with the Foreign Ministers of Afghanistan, Nepal and Pakistan, pledging to strengthen cooperation among the four nations in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic as well as boosting their economic recoveries, including through regional connectivity projects. China proposed extending the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan, as well as taking forward an economic corridor plan with Nepal, called the Trans-Himalayan Multi-dimensional Connectivity Network. While India focused on bilateral COVID-19 aid with a few select neighbours, China has kick-started a “Health Silk Road” that began with the ASEAN members and moved on to Central Asia. In both these regions, China has major plans for the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative.

The joint statement indicated that China’s subsidiary intentions behind including some SAARC countries that are not contiguous and leaving out others was linked to OBOR. The Chinese railway line from Shigatse to Kathmandu is making progress. The Indian hesitation in taking up the construction of a rail line from Iran to Afghanistan is in contrast with Beijing’s multi-billion dollar plan with Iran that may now be expanded to connect Afghanistan. China has copied India’s SAARC move albeit at a much smaller scale. This is alarming to India.

Since 2014, Nepal had been constantly pushing India to hold talks with it over the unsettled border dispute. Modi grandiose Neighbourhood First announcement was followed by inept implementation and growing suspicions across bordering countries of a larger cultural integration motive. For instance, by not talking to Nepal for long, India has played into Nepal Prime Minister K P Oli’s hands and helped him promote his nationalist agenda.

Modi, perhaps, needs to come up with a Neighbourhood First 2.0 to counter the growing challenges in India’s vicinity, be it from Pakistan, Sri Lanka or the ‘trustworthy’ Nepal. Factoring China as a constant in the new regional diplomatic equations wouldn’t be a bad idea either. And for that the only solution is: Talks. The idea of shying away from talks will prove to more challenging than ever in a post-Covid South Asia.

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