In recent times, the world has seen two models of regional cooperation. In one, countries resolve their political disputes and are then able to generate economic linkages, which, in turn, create conditions for even closer political integration.
The European Union has followed this model, based as it was on the utter defeat of the Third Reich in World War II, and an imposition of a political settlement that led to the emergence of a democratic Germany.
The second model has been the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) where a great deal has been achieved in economic integration, but not political.
Even though the unstated purpose of the outfit was to oppose Communist expansion, it is yet to display a common political personality.
The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) process subliminally, or otherwise, aimed at both the goals, and in a sense has tended to fall between two stools.
To the man on the street, the 14th Saarc summit is one of those seasonal New Delhi happenings. Flags and buntings bedeck roundabouts, there is a hustle and bustle at the Vigyan Bhavan, traffic is periodically thrown out of gear as VIPs move around.
The frisson, or the burden of expectations, is limited to a circle of ministers, their officials working long hours over lengthy declarations and a clutch of civil society groups and academics interested in promoting regional cooperation.
We need not worry too much about this disconnect because, till recently, Saarc had only meant grand summits and verbose declarations. For a variety of reasons the situation has changed now.
South Asian countries have looked at the success of other regional groupings and understood very well the need for, and advantages of, a regional grouping. But getting it to work has not proved to be easy.
In some part this has had to do with the history of the region whose two major entities — Pakistan and Bangladesh — were created so that they could distance themselves, first from India, and then each other.
Partly, the problem has been the unusual circumstance that makes one of the countries, India, very much bigger than all the others combined. This, not unnaturally, provoked fears that the entity will overawe the others with its economic and military might.
Yet, a country of India’s size and potential has its own compulsions and problems, not in the least those triggered by the insecurities of its smaller neighbours.
Big countries like India have traditionally used the carrot-and-stick approach to establish their standing with smaller neighbours. The more successful powers use a third element — ideology, not in the style of Lenin or Golwalkar, but a more subtle mix of high and popular culture, and ideas that others feel impelled to emulate.
In South Asia, India possesses all these elements, but not in as generous a measure as it would have liked to have had. Though a strong military power, its ability to influence Pakistan has always been limited. For most of its post-Independence history, it never had the economic wherewithal for its own growth and was, therefore, unable to use economic inducement to influence its neighbours’ conduct.
Arguably, its strong socio-cultural appeal has generated resentment and actually had a negative fallout: elites in Pakistan and Bangladesh have sought to counter it through their Islamisation projects.
Many in India, especially its leadership in the 1980s, believed that Saarc was mooted as a means of checking India. During this period, India was also going through a period of acute insecurity.
US and Chinese activities in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka raised New Delhi’s fears to the level of paranoia. India went through a period of confrontation with Sri Lanka, Nepal and Pakistan.
Not all of these were without positive outcomes. In Sri Lanka, it eventually yielded a common policy, aided by unfortunate circumstances like Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, that brought New Delhi and Colombo together against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
In the case of Nepal, the 1988-89 blockade was the vital catalyst that led to the democracy movement. In retrospect it would appear that India’s difficulties with Nepal have been the result of its overweening monarchs. But confrontation with Pakistan in the 1980s, yielded only more tension and conflict in the 1990s.
So as long as trade and foreign investment were seen as a peripheral aspect of the Indian economy, the Saarc, notwithstanding its charter, was viewed with a jaundiced eye.
But from the 1990s, it became clear that regional and global linkages could play an important role in our economic growth, and so India and other regional countries began to see the organisation as a means of promoting economic integration.
This they believed would be the first stage of a process that could lead to economic gain, as well as aid in the process of resolving outstanding political issues.
The clearest manifestation of this was in the outcome of the historic 12th summit in Islamabad that committed the Saarc nations to create a South Asian Free Trade Area (Safta) by 2012, and the current, most sustained phase of India-Pakistan efforts to resolve their political problems.
The decision on Safta, tentative and unsatisfactory as it may have been, was a major step forward from the endless wrangling over its predecessor preferential trading arrangement.
The path-breaking India-Pakistan agreement on resolving their political disputes is the pivot on which present expectations on the utility of Saarc rest.
Critics often point to the long years it has taken Saarc to reach this far. They often forget that it took the EU more the 40 years to mature from the initial European Coal and Steel Community of 1951 to the political union shaped by the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. Likewise even 40 years after its founding, Asean remains essentially an economic grouping. Though it is an economic powerhouse, it has yet to develop a significant political profile.
In some ways the Asean offers the best model of a politically cautious and economically beneficial process for regional integration. Its perspective of the future was best encapsulated by the Bali II Concord arrived at in the 2003 Summit that decided that the Asean needed to move away from its current “inter-governmental” structure into a “community” framework, in the manner of the EU.
To this end, the Concord outlined an architecture resting on three pillars of an Asean Security Community (ASC), an Economic Community (AEC) and a Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC).
While the aim of the AEC would be to achieve, by 2020, a free flow of goods, services and investment, the ASCC would seek to harmonise poverty alleviation, public health and human resource development activities.
Of great significance is the ASC which has committed the Asean to undertake political and security cooperation towards creating a “just, democratic and harmonious environment.”
As a spokesman later clarified, the Asean, which comprises some democracies, an absolute monarchy and some authoritarian regimes, has essentially signed up to the theory of “democratic peace”, which believes that democratic processes will promote regional peace and stability.
As the largest country in South Asia, India’s efforts must be towards a process that will lead to closer economic integration as well as a harmonisation of the political perspectives of the countries of the region.
While trade and tariff rules, better connectivity and visas are the sinews of economic growth, the people of the region need something more to make the exercise directly relevant to their lives. That could be “democratic peace”, the foundation on which Saarc will be able to promote peace and stability in the region.