For decades, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) has been the embodiment of South Asia’s refusal to keep in step with the rest of the world, which embraces regional integration as an adaptive response to globalisation.
Saarc summits are marked by lofty objectives, a bit of suspense about bilateral interactions — principally about a meeting between Indian and Pakistani prime ministers — a barely noticed communiqué and subsequent bureaucratic dysfunction that undercuts all promises of progress. That must change because the region’s leaders have to contend with the challenge of millions of young people who are impatient for change.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who believes in strengthening economic links and is expected to unveil his vision for regional cooperation, must set an ambitious South Asia agenda at the Saarc summit starting tomorrow in Kathmandu, Nepal. This is the moment for India to lead by crafting a future for Saarc that is not held back by India-Pakistan tensions, which have often been the alibi for giving up on the integration agenda.
India should institute a degree of integration with all neighbours that will prompt Pakistan to have a greater stake in regional integration in order to ultimately alter its revisionist approach to power politics in the subcontinent. Most argue for a focus on improving infrastructure and connectivity since South Asian countries, somewhat absurdly, tend to transact 95% of their foreign trade with countries outside the region.
Former foreign secretary Shyam Saran has, on this page, argued that India can be an engine of growth for the region — and hence ought to unilaterally open up its market to neighbours, which will be an enormous goodwill gesture without at all threatening its economic interests. In addition to a freer visa regime, Mr Saran also called for according transit rights to other countries so they can build economic links with each other through the Indian land mass — without New Delhi having to worry about security since there are technological solutions to effectively screen goods.
Others want India to invest in the creation of a range of ‘public goods for South Asians’ including cross-border energy grids and road, rail, shipping and air networks. Developing infrastructure is recognised as ‘the most potent tool of security, connectivity and diplomacy’.
Mr Modi will hopefully signal his intent in this direction. Diplomats in Kathmandu have the unenviable task of crafting a communiqué that measures up to the calibre of advice they have recently got from strategists. They must not disappoint.