A year into its transition from monarchy to democracy, and Bhutan is excitedly gearing up to host the 16th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) meet in its tiny capital of Thimpu early next year. Clearly, the Bhutanese optimism stems more from its famed gross national happiness quotient than any real chance that the Saarc meet will bring good tidings to all men. When the Thimpu meet takes place, Saarc will have been around for 25 years and as the popular sitcom character George Castanza says in Seinfeld, it has been about nothing.
The only positive thing that has happened in the South Asian region is that we are all, at least in name, now democracies. But has that meant that we see more eye-to-eye these days? Not at all. In fact, the biggest drag on Saarc ever getting off the ground, Indo-Pak relations could not be worse. And deteriorating by the day. With the ghost of 26/11 yet to be laid to rest, no Saarc meet will go beyond the blame game. For a Pakistan which is steadily going down the tube, India can do no right. So we have its interior minister, Rehman Malik, coming up with conspiracy theories that India is funding the Taliban, which is about as probable as Subhas Chandra Bose turning up in Connaught Place for the New Year celebrations.
Of all the regional groupings in the world, Saarc’s track record has been the most dismal. Intra-regional trade in South Asia is a mere 2 per cent of GDP as opposed to 20 per cent for Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and 55 per cent for the European Union.
The problem is very simple, Pakistan will just not give in an inch on any issue regarding India, especially trade. It will buy Indian goods at much higher prices from Dubai than directly from India. Each Saarc meet ends up with Pakistan bringing up some footling issue and linking it to Kashmir much to the frustration of the other smaller nations. South Asia has come out of the global recession in a much better shape than many of the big boys. A Saarc meet at this time could work to build up this advantage. Could, but won’t.
It has always been argued that it is in India’s interest to bind the region, thanks to our giant market. But it is equally in the self-interest of the smaller entities to make Saarc work by entering into collaborative projects with India. As Ajay Chibber, undersecretary-general of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) puts it, “If Asean, which has greater potential for conflict among its member-States than Saarc can get its act together, surely there is nothing to stop us.” Saarc, he feels, has tremendous potential but is an empty box today.
There are increasing signs that the other South Asian countries have less hopes of Saarc today than they did a decade ago. We have common problems of poverty, food security, human trafficking and terrorism. But so far, no real effort has been made at intelligence sharing or finding a common platform to address these issues. Of these, one of the most potentially explosive is that of illegal migrants.
The demographic patterns of India’s volatile North-east are already changing, thanks to unchecked migration from Bangladesh. Now many might argue that there has been a similar influx of Nepalese across an open border. But the problems of militancy and radicalism that Bangladeshi migrants bring with them, as intelligence sources point out, are not associated with the Nepalese.
The problem that India and Nepal face is the trafficking of women and labour. Saarc has long been speaking of a viable mechanism to tackle both migration and trafficking but, predictably, nothing has come of that. So, the question then arises about whether we need to prolong the life of this ineffectual albatross round our neck. Should we keep propping up a Saarc secretariat with its attendant costs when 25 years down the line, we can’t get past the usual Indo-Pak slugfest? The Indo-Pak problem is not going to go away. In fact, Pakistan would be most offended if, for a moment, good sense were to prevail and these tensions would be put on the backburner for the progress of Saarc.
The only way Saarc can go ahead and do something constructive is for all the other countries to collectively assert that bilateral issues cannot be discussed and pass strictures against those who do so. There are many in India who now feel that we have left Saarc behind. Perhaps there is merit in this argument when looked at from the economic point of view. But there is no getting away from the fact that India is prospering in varying degrees in a region of immense poverty. We can never ensure our geographical security unless we pull our neighbours out of the morass. Pakistan will just have to be bypassed and greater efforts made by India to engage the others.
It does India no credit to be the big kid on the block of countries derisively described as the poor man’s club. Waiting for Pakistan to see sense is akin to hanging around in the bus stop for the bus that never comes. We just have to start walking and get on with whatever business we can transact with the others in the hope that Pakistan will see sense.
But at the moment, given Pakistan’s Norman Bates-like delusions, it seems unlikely that the Thimpu meet will set the Yamuna on fire. Perhaps a viable answer would be to disband Saarc as it stands and regroup with a new charter that allows for less elbow room for the naysayers to derail matters. It would be better to admit the failure of the present grouping than hang on to something that is long past its sell-by date.