At 6.30 pm, the media centre at Radisson Hotel was abuzz with activity. Nepal’s acting foreign secretary, Shankar Bairagi, was about to speak about the outcomes of a standing committee meeting.
In the bureaucratic maze that is Saarc, the programme committee led by joint secretaries heading Saarc in foreign ministries of each member state met first; they then passed on the recommendations to a standing committee of foreign secretaries which met Monday; They will pass on their conclusions to foreign ministers who will meet on Tuesday; and finally that will be the basis of the discussions between the heads of the government during the Saarc summit on Wednesday and Thursday, leading to the Kathmandu declaration.
Each country submitted their reports and stressed on immediate implementation of Saarc activities, Bairagi told reporters, when asked about proceedings. Certain regional centres were closed down and others were merged to rationalise it; there was a realisation that while the Saarc Development Fund had a strong social component, it needed economic and infrastructure elements; and the headquarters would be shifted to a new location in Kathmandu.
Three new agreements were in the pipeline to live up to the summit’s theme of deepening integration — on railways, on motor vehicles and a framework for energy cooperation. The last, a top Nepali foreign ministry source said, was crucial, for it would be the precursor to a regional power grid and enable a range of power trading arrangements.
“Pakistan however is not certain and so we can not go through till their clearances comes. We are not sure if it will happen,” he added. But even as officials of three countries HT spoke to said the mood was positive, they admitted it was little more than routine.
One official of a smaller South Asian state said, “There is more focus than the past but what we are doing is still routine. Saarc needs a big idea. It needs a morale booster.”
And that boost, officials say, could only be provided by one country, India, and one man, Narendra Modi. A Nepali official said, “This is a ritual. The only question in this summit is if Modi decides to use Saarc as his vehicle for the neighbourhood-first policy and push engagement or if he prefers a bilateral approach with neighbours.”
This, he said, will determine the future of the summit and the organisation. India after all enjoys asymmetrical power and shares borders with most countries in the region even as most don’t with each other.
And that is why all eyes are on Modi’s policy statement on Wednesday morning. Saarc summit in Kathmandu, like past summits, will conclude successfully. Whether it lays the basis of meaningful multilateralism will be known soon.