It was in November 2014 that a large contingent of journalists stood watching the concluding ceremony of the 18th Saarc summit from the India media centre, located next to Kathmandu’s posh Soaltee Hotel – where South Asia’s top leaders were staying.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, had been cold to each other at the inaugural function – an event coinciding with the sixth anniversary of the Mumbai attacks – the previous day. A multilateral agreement on connectivity had got held up because of Pakistani opposition. Islamabad had also tried to push China’s membership, much to India’s chagrin.
Amidst this tense backdrop, a cheer went up. Journalists broke out in smiles: Modi and Sharif had finally shaken hands. The media got its headlines, and the Nepal government – which was playing host – was thrilled. The summit was salvaged. (In her book, journalist Barkha Dutt later revealed that the two leaders had actually met, quietly.)
India’s decision on Tuesday to pull out of the Saarc summit in Islamabad later this year is a reminder, yet again, of how relations between the two big states of South Asia have always held regional cooperation hostage. In a statement, Delhi has said that increasing “cross-border terror attacks” and “growing interference in the internal affairs of member states by one country (read Pakistan)” have created a non-conducive environment for the summit.
“The PM is committed to regional cooperation. This is reflected in the neighbourhood-first policy, and a range of regional initiatives he has pushed. But it would have been absurd to go to Pakistan when the country is sponsoring attacks and terror strikes,” says a diplomatic source.
The decision, however, can only be understood in the backdrop of suspicion between the two countries.
When SAARC was first formed in the 80s, India saw the group as a gang-up of potentially hostile smaller states led by Pakistan. It simply went through the motions without investing in it. As India warmed up to the idea – recognising the importance of a stable region and pushing for integration and economic cooperation – Islamabad became wary of getting ‘trapped’ in India’s economic designs. With its veto, it began blocking South Asian initiatives to spite India.
Tuesday’s decision is a sign that India will continue to push the idea of South Asian regional cooperation minus Pakistan. India’s plan is to push engagement through bilateral or sub-regional channels. Modi had hinted at this approach during the last SAARC summit.
He spoke of the achievements on the bilateral front with various countries, particularly on connectivity. “The bonds will grow through SAARC or outside it, among us all or some of us,” he said. The hint was not hard to miss. If Pakistan did not want to come along, India would move ahead anyway – finding a different medium to do it. The Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) initiative is one example of this model.
Critics, however, point at the limitations of this approach. Geography cannot be ignored, and without Pakistan – and its people – inside, the South Asian bus will not go very far.
However, the Indian establishment has made its intentions clear for the moment. Unless Pakistan’s behaviour changes, Delhi will define South Asia in its own way.