Is it time to junk SAARC?
The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was launched with considerable fanfare in Bangladesh in 1985 and hosted by then president H.M. Ershad, who probably wanted to distract his audience from the military dictatorship he ran at the time. (He succeeded in his effort by winning the rigged election one year later.)
Fortunately for him, the region disregarded his lack of democratic credentials and showed up to promote the “creation of an order based on mutuality of respect, equity and shared benefits” – Bhutan’s King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, India’s PM Rajiv Gandhi, Sri Lanka’s President J.R. Jayewardene, Maldives’ fellow dictator Maumoon Gayoom, Nepal’s King Birendra Shah and Pakistan’s martial law administrator Zia-ul Haq.
Fast forward to September 2021. On the margins of the UN General Assembly on the weekend, a scheduled annual SAARC meeting was called off because member states could not agree on who should be invited to represent Afghanistan – the Pakistanis reportedly wanted a Taliban representative, others wanted to keep a symbolic empty chair. They argued, but could not agree. So, all the officials trooped back to their hotels, shrugging their shoulders, instead of trying to broker a compromise.
When the region looks back on the history of its on-off effort to try and create a regional identity, this will be the moment it will lock into – when SAARC fell apart, each nation going its own way, many of them towards China.
The truth about SAARC
Certainly, this is an exaggerated description of the scene. SAARC, most will argue, isn’t disintegrating at all, that it exists in the Secretariat in Nepal, in the “youth award”, in its Federation of Accountants, its initiative to End Violence Against Children and a few other politically correct efforts.
But the truth is, SAARC is well and truly dead in the water. Let’s acknowledge that fact and conduct its funeral ceremonies – light its pyre or bury it or both. Hire a helicopter and scatter the ashes on all the rivers of all the nations. Let’s end the hypocrisy that South Asia’s nations care about each other. It’s time to move on.
The last SAARC summit was held in Nepal in 2014, after which the chairmanship was handed over to Pakistan. But because charter rules say that a summit can only be held if all members agree and India’s bilateral relationship with Pakistan has rapidly deteriorated over the years – although we shouldn’t forget that Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited all the SAARC leaders to his swearing-in in May 2014 – the organisation has slowly shriveled up. Its last gasps were silenced in New York over the weekend.
Although, I can’t let you go, dear reader, without pointing out what could have been – and what is. In 2006, when SAARC met in Delhi, it spawned the idea of a free trade area; nations competed to put a name to the common currency. Today, SAARC is the least integrated region in the world – less than 5 per cent, according to the World Bank, compared to East Asia’s 35 per cent and Europe’s 60 per cent. Even sub-Saharan Africa does better, with 22 per cent intra-regional trade.
Things are so bad that it is 20 per cent cheaper for Indian traders to trade with Brazil than with Pakistan. India’s total trade with SAARC today hovers between 1.7 per cent to 3.8 per cent, according to 2017 figures, a Brookings study found. Protectionist policies, high cost of logistics, lack of political will and a broader trust deficit are the reasons, the study said. For any South Asian reading this, all of it sounds all-too familiar.
In 2014, during the Nepal summit, Pakistan refused to participate in three efforts to improve connectivity. Subsequently, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and India tried to undertake a transport pact between them – but it failed because Bhutan’s standards for vehicular emissions were much higher than India, for example. In 2019, the Pulwama terror attack paved the way for India striking deep inside Pakistan, which brought the relationship to a new low. In 2021, Pakistan reportedly wanted the Taliban regime in Afghanistan to be part of SAARC, but for the time being, other countries have demurred.
Other groupings are taking over
As SAARC lies writhing in its own spit, other regional groupings have sought to take its place – BIMSTEC or the Bay of Bengal community, authored by India; CASA-1000, an electricity transmission project between Central Asia and Pakistan; CPEC, between China and Pakistan; and BRI or the China-led Belt-and-Road Initiative that has tied up with all SAARC nations except India and Bhutan.
As China grows militarily and economically more powerful, its ability to cut a cheque and hand it to poorer SAARC nations – for example, President Xi Jinping’s $26 billion promise to Bangladesh in 2016 – has grown with commensurate ease.
In fact, the Brookings study notes, China has increased its exports to SAARC from $8 billion in 2005 to $52 billion in 2018, a growth of 546 per cent.
China is no longer the elephant in the SAARC room, it occupies the entire zoo.
As Prime Minister Modi returns from his first post-pandemic visit abroad and moves headlong back into the politics of our times, it seems as if New Delhi would rather jump over its neighbourhood and make connections with more powerful nations like the US, France, UK, Russia, etc, with powerful groupings like the Quad.
But if India wants to be taken seriously as a regional player, it has to learn to get along with its neighbourhood. Instead of downgrading SAARC, or killing it off altogether, perhaps the PM should take another look at what ails this grouping and chalk out a national strategy that encompasses both politics and economics.
In its 75th year of Independence, perhaps India should do itself a favour and look at creative new ways to revive this moribund grouping. Because if it doesn’t, SAARC is sure to die an unwanted death.
Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)