The 14th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) has ended without the usual pyrotechnics between the region’s countries. Some may argue that not much came of the meet. But that would be to miss the woods for the trees. The most striking aspect of the summit was New Delhi’s new-found maturity. Rather than insist on a quid pro quo for concessions made, it has suggested unilateral initiatives to push for regional integration. Among these are duty-free access to the least developed countries and a reduction in the list of sensitive imports. India also announced the unilateral liberalisation of visas for students, teachers, professors, journalists and patients from Saarc nations. No one can quarrel with this. It has made it clear that it is in a new economic league and can afford to be magnanimous.
Dialogue and compromise were the two recurrent points raised by both India and Pakistan when referring to their outstanding issues. Again a welcome departure from the embarrassing mudslinging of the past. There was no playing to the galleries on the part of Pakistan’s pm Shaukat Aziz who repeatedly sought to underplay differences between the two subcontinental foes. China, an observer, has chipped in with its bit and offered to institutionalise the South Asia-China Business Forum. Japan wants to help with connectivity and the EU with its expertise on trade.
The biggest challenge now will be to build on the agenda of this summit. As we have seen all too often, once the curtain comes down, very little gets implemented. This would be a shame. For the first time ever, Saarc looks set to take off as a cohesive regional grouping. This holds out enormous hope for one of the most impoverished regions in the world. For the first time too, there are forward-looking leaders in most of the countries who understand the futility of remaining prisoner to the past. Powerful entities like the US and the EU, not to mention China and Japan, seem genuinely interested in Saarc’s progress. This goodwill is due to a growing recognition of the fact that in today’s world, issues like terrorism can’t be tackled in isolation. While the McLuhan dream of a global village is some way off, it certainly seems a time for all good nations to come to the aid of the party.