The eighteenth Saarc summit stared at the prospect of concluding without any agreement - as Pakistan has held back its assent to key pacts on connectivity and energy. Even as the
, Prime Minister Narendra Modi - in a clear message to Islamabad - said the countries in the region will deepen bonds, 'through Saarc or outside it, among us all or some of us'.
The Kathmandu summit was to witness three agreements - on road connectivity, railways and a framework for energy cooperation. Saarc operates on consensus and Nepali officials hosting the meet confirmed to HT that Pakistan is blocking the pacts saying its internal processes were not complete. But as chair, Nepal was trying to convince Islamabad, said an official.
Even as Islamabad took a hardline, Modi unveiled his own approach to the region in his first Saarc outing. Modi laid out the weaknesses of the regional grouping, spoke about the need to ease barriers, and cited trade, investment, assistance, cooperation in all areas and people to people contacts as the five pillars of a regional vision.
But Modi was emphatic that despite the weaknesses of the multilateral framework, countries were working togetherbilaterally. He said Delhi-Dhaka had deepened road, rail, power and transit links; with Kathmandu, India had kicked off a new era in energy cooperation and deepened such ties with Thimphu; a free trade agreement with Sri Lanka had been transformative; India was helping meet Maldives' oil needs; despite 'distance and difficulties', Delhi and Kabul had come closer. And in his only reference to Pakistan by name, Modi said bus and train sustain contacts between the two people's.
Besides citing examples of bilateral successes, Modi drove home his point when he said at the end. "The bonds will grow through Saarc or outside it, among us all or some of us."
The principle laid out by Modi had an immediate resonance in the backdrop of the stuck pacts. Syed Akbaruddin, MEA spokesperson, clarified that none of the pacts were 'Indian proposals' and in fact India already had road, rail and energy cooperation with many neighbours separately. "It is an initiative of those Saarc countries who wanted an umbrella framework." In bilateral meetings with Modi, these states were 'more than a little disappointed'. He added that the last summit had witnessed several agreements but the hope was that at an informal retreat on Thursday morning, this would be a major discussion point.
Summing up the Indian approach, an Indian official said, "Look, the message is we are on a bullet train. We want to travel together on it. Get on if you want to, but if you don't, we won't wait."