If past and recent precedents are anything to go by, then the likely decision in favour of finance minister Arun Jaitley staying away from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) finance ministers meet in Islamabad is a wise one. It also signals India’s frustration with the grouping which seems to achieve very little for the region.
The recent visit of home minister Rajnath Singh to Islamabad for a Saarc ministerial meet got mired in controversy, largely thanks to the host country’s less than diplomatic behaviour. The meet got overshadowed by the bilateral problems of India and Pakistan at the cost of other member nations. In many ways, it is a singular disservice to the other countries in the region that the Saarc forum has been repeatedly hijacked by India-Pakistan disputes.
As an economic grouping, Saarc has not made much progress thanks to irrational trade barriers, political disputes and historic hostilities. The utility of Saarc as far as India goes now really hangs in the balance. India, with its vast economic base, was supposed to be powerhouse pulling the grouping forward. But at every step, any movement forward has been derailed by either the Kashmir issue or terror. India has got fairly brisk trade ties with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and it has played a crucial role in Nepal’s economy so far. Perhaps the time has come for India to focus on countries with which it has points of commonality and not so much on the Saarc grouping.
At its inception, Saarc was meant to be like Asean but today it is nowhere on the radar compared to the latter. Asean has been able to put aside political differences to emerge as a strong trade bloc. The initiatives undertaken by Saarc are more in the nature of bilateral trade and cultural ties. In the larger context of Asia, Saarc is not taken very seriously and within the region, the other countries are resentful of the platform being used only to air India-Pakistan grievances. India has long wanted to be part of other regional groupings given its economic growth and aspirations to be a regional superpower. It should pursue these aims more aggressively. But at the same time, it must, given it size and economy, show accommodation towards the smaller countries in the region rather than focus on the dispute with Pakistan. A stronger Saarc would be good for the region where some of the world’s poorest people live and which could really benefit from intra-regional trade.