The tussle between Maldives and Indian infrastructure developer GMR shows that there is an urgent need for a deeper engagement among the eight members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) that completes 43 years of existence on December 8.
The anniversary will be a reminder of the unfulfilled promise of a bloc that has enough resources to become prosperous. But perhaps enough time has elapsed and enough geopolitics and economics have changed to compel the region into unite. This unity, however, will not come without India, which is the major global player within Saarc playing a major role. But political fissures in South Asia are holding back India’s ambitions.
These fissures also impact the commercial sphere with India’s investments in the region like hydro-power projects in Nepal, upgradation of infrastructure in the Maldives and pharmaceutical manufacturing in Bangladesh. A bilateral of trust enables good economics: for instance, with hydropower projects in Bhutan and increased trade with Sri Lanka.
Domestic politics too, is impacting relations with other members. Remember how Tamil Nadu reacted to India’s support for the UN vote against Sri Lanka’s on its human rights record and the chilling effect the Bengal government’s opposition to the Teesta water-sharing agreement had on relations with Bangladesh? Some of these differences could have been better contained if there was more trust among the South Asian governments.
For India, then, an effective Saarc is very important. We are 80% of the Saarc economy, occupy three-fifths of the land area of South Asia and share a land border with all the Saarc countries except Sri Lanka, from which we are separated by only 31 kilometres of sea, and the Maldives further south.
Apart from Afghanistan, all other Saarc countries can connect only through India, whether it is the short distance between Bhutan and Nepal or the breadth of India between Pakistan and Bangladesh.
These are borders that we must learn to manage — even if they are viewed as still fairly new in India’s civilisational terms. The economic fallout of the Partition has eroded pre-independence transport connectivities and shrunk economic exchanges. The Partition also cut India off from its centuries-old neighbours in West Asia whose influence on culture and religious composition was so momentous, and on whose energy resources India is so dependent. It also cut India off from Southeast Asia into which Hinduism, Buddhism and Indian culture had flowed for centuries.
The occupation of Tibet by China in the 1950s suddenly presented India with a new and hostile neighbour — China — and became a formidable barrier to the continuation of historical connections with the Central Asian states. This lack of access began to choke India when growth rates began to race towards 9% in the first decade of this century and energy imports became an imperative.
For India to transcend its geography and take its rightful place in the world, it must work to minimise differences with its Saarc neighbours and increase their stake in taking the region forward. An indispensable starting point would be to understand how bilateral relations and specifically India’s policies are perceived by its neighbours. This exercise is important not only for the rise of India but equally so for Saarc, because the importance of region acting and progressing together is highlighted by the political upheavals in the Arab world and the economic turbulence in Europe.
The significance of the success of India as a developing democracy that can achieve high rates of growth while attempting distributive justice as an alternative to the free-market Washington consensus or the authoritarian Beijing model, should not be underestimated; other developing countries with a similar history of colonisation also hope to become democratic.
Expanding intra-Saarc trade can be a major impetus if political differences can be resolved through compromise. A virtuous cycle can begin: through the process of compromise, India will be able to access the energy resources it so badly needs to power its growth, while the energy flows themselves can link the economies.
Neelam Deo is Director, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relation, Mumbai.
She has been India’s ambassador to Denmark and Ivory Coast
The views expressed by the author are personal