SAARC may have failed to realize its goals in the past 23 years since its creation, but it remains an important platform for regular interaction among South Asian leaders, acting as a means for removing mistrust and misperceptions.
Q. SAARC has created so many subsidiary bodies dealing with diversified issues of regional cooperation—for instance, SAARC Information Centre located in Nepal—but they have not produced anything yet. What do you think?
A. Well, first of all, let me make it clear that SAARC is a regionalism process. Generally, we perceive regionalism as an idealistic initiative. However, the fact is that regionalism is a realistic concept. In this age of globalization, it is very difficult for even a rich country to compete alone in world economy, what to speak of a poor nation. Developing countries have peripheral significance in the current economic system, heavily favoring a minority of richer states at the centre. Given that, in various regions of the world, we see a growing trend towards regionalism networks, and SAARC is one of them. The whole idea is that all of the eight member-states should coordinate their economic and trade policies so as to better compete with the rest of the world as one bloc.
However, the truth is that during its 23 years of existence, SAARC has failed to realize such real-politic goals. If it has not achieved broader goals, how can we expect it to deliver vis-à-vis subsidiary setups?
A. I think, unlike other regions such as South-East Asia, where ASEAN has proven to be a big success, the main problem in South Asia is that it has a giant country like India surrounded by seven smaller member-states. Like the US case in NAFTA, India’s share of responsibility has to be greater in South Asia. The problem is that India has not shown such responsibility when it comes to resolving political conflicts such as Kashmir, and agreeing to tariff concessions for its smaller neighbours as part of SAPTA and SAFTA process. So, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, for their respective experiences in the past, deeply mistrust India.
Q. But, you cannot target India alone for criticism.
A. I agree. SAARC’s failure is basically a failure of South Asian leaders, all of them. There has been a dearth of leaders with foresight. There is deep political instability in member-states; so, you can’t sustain a uniform policy towards revamping regionalism. Even otherwise, for successful regionalism, each member-state also has to make individual strides. In the case of ASEAN, the leadership factor played an important part in the economic progress of Singapore and Malaysia.
But, I would again stress that India’s largeness is an important aberration and a barrier to successful regionalism in South Asia, and it is only India that can overcome this barrier by realizing that regional states deeply mistrust it, and then doing what it is required to do to remove such misgivings.
Q. Final thoughts?
A. We should not be pessimistic about SAARC. Even if it has not delivered, this regional body is still significant—because it provides a platform to leaders and officials of eight member-states to interact regularly. Remember there was much tension between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and between India and Pakistan, before the summit over the July 7th terrorist bombing of Indian embassy in Kabul! But at SAARC the leaders of the three countries were able to interact, and the tension was significantly defused.
One last point: I understand that technically speaking bilateral issues cannot be raised in a regional institution, and should not come in the way of SAARC. But the opposite is also true: Effective regionalism cannot begin until resolution of bilateral issues, especially of potentially violent nature such as Kashmir.