India-Pakistan tensions are set to once again cast a shadow over a crucial meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, raising questions about the regional grouping’s effectiveness in driving socio-economic development.
Finance minister Arun Jaitley is expected to skip a meeting of Saarc finance ministers in Pakistan next week. This comes close on the heels of bilateral tensions affecting a meeting of Saarc interior ministers in Islamabad on July 4.
According to Saarc convention, a summit is called off if the head of even one state doesn’t attend. However, a ministerial meeting can go ahead if a country is represented by a minister of state or a senior official.
The six other members of the grouping – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, the Maldives and Sri Lanka – have often looked on helplessly as relations between India and Pakistan have overshadowed deliberations at Saarc gatherings over the years.
Nepal’s former foreign minister Ramesh Nath Pandey told Hindustan Times on Tuesday that the countries of South Asia will not be able to develop separately if the region doesn’t develop collectively.
“As long as India and Pakistan do not have better ties, regional cooperation will not happen. And if regional cooperation does not happen, smaller states in South Asia will lose out,” he said.
Pandey suggested that smaller states in the region should, in their own interest, play a role in bringing India and Pakistan together. “As the capital of Saarc - the Saarc headquarters is in Kathmandu - and as the current chair of Saarc, Nepal should take the initiative in trying to build bridges between India and Pakistan.”
Former Indian foreign secretary Lalitman Singh said a lot hinged on the Saarc charter’s provision that the grouping couldn’t discuss bilateral issues.
“The Saarc charter says bilateral issues will not be discussed. But India-Pakistan relations have always affected Saarc. It could be collateral damage. As it is, nothing much has progressed on Saarc, so one wouldn’t even know the extent of this damage,” he said.
Shambhu Ram Simkhada, a former Nepali envoy, too said India-Pakistan rivalry is the key bottleneck to the healthy growth of Saarc. The current standoff between the two countries could even hit the Saarc summit to be held in Pakistan later this year, he said.
“Saarc should have a broader mandate and Saarc should talk about or take up political matters so that India-Pakistan issues can be resolved in the regional forum,” he suggested.
Observers noted that bickering between India and Pakistan had held up progress at Saarc on issues ranging from greater economic integration, including transit and preferential treatment among member states, to a united front against terrorism. Bilateral tensions have also affected proposed energy cooperation within Saarc, they said.
The strained ties between India and Pakistan have also led to the emergence of initiatives such as BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal) and BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) but even these have failed to take off.