As the curtain goes up on the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) summit, one question is likely to be uppermost in most people’s minds. Will this be just another gabfest, all atmospherics and no substance, as has been the pattern with past meets? No, this time around, things are looking up for the regional grouping once dismissed as a poor man’s club. For a start, apart from the mandatory reference to Kashmir by Pakistani PM Shaukat Aziz, India and Pakistan have refrained from engaging in the usual bilateral spat. Several significant factors will serve to elevate this summit to a higher and more meaningful level. China, Korea, Japan, the US and the EU are observers this year, a sign that the Saarc is being taken far more seriously than before. Afghanistan makes its debut into the grouping this year and two members, Nepal and Bhutan, have made significant strides towards democracy.
The most important aspect perhaps is the increasing cordiality between arch foes India and Pakistan. While real peace between the two is a long way off, both appear to have realised that the way forward for Saarc is to focus on integrating the region through trade. At present, intra-regional trade is only 5 per cent compared to 45 per cent trade between the region and Asean. India’s fast-growing economy, at one time viewed with trepidation by smaller neighbours, is now seen as an engine that can pull the desperately poor region up. Freer movement of goods and people will allow Bangladesh and Nepal to take advantage of the vast Indian market. Of course, problems remain. The war without end in Sri Lanka is one. Relations between New Delhi and Colombo have lost much of the earlier warmth owing to differences over President Mahinda Rajapakse’s pursuit of a military solution to the island’s ethnic problems.
The real challenge now is to concretise the strategies that will be thrown up at the meet. While this may be difficult, India has to be prepared to go that extra mile for its smaller neighbours. The economic and social stability of the region will work to India’s advantage. This is vital if we are to continue on our growth trajectory. Though things are looking up as Saarc begins, there are bound to be glitches ahead. This is to be expected when a grouping as disparate as Saarc tries to pull together. So we cannot expect any miracles but the stars foretell happier times ahead.