Beyond the speeches, the current summit of the eight-nation South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in Kathmandu is likely to come up with zilch. Reason: as long as Pakistan and India are not on the same page on any issue, SAARC will be a non-starter.
India needs to downgrade SAARC to a mere talk-shop, and focus instead on bilateral deals with the rest, excluding Pakistan. The only reason SAARC exists is to give the members an appearance of amity; the only reason it cannot be shut down completely is because it gives China an opening to create its own South Asian Forum by excluding India.
Pakistan has been a virus in the circuits of SAARC for as long as one can remember. As this NDTV report today (26 November) suggests, in the current summit as many as three agreements - two for improving road and rail connections and a third for integrating the power grids so that SAARC countries can trade in electricity – will be junked as Pakistan has said nein. And Pakistan is placing roadblocks because it wants to force India to start talking and do a deal on Kashmir – which is impossible. Apart from resuming talks without purpose, there is no way to make a deal on Kashmir without further vivisection – which is not acceptable to India.
To aid Pakistan in this process of countering India, China wants to be a part of SAARC by being upgraded to dialogue partner (or even a full member) and not just an observer. Pakistan has been busy lobbying for China to enter SAARC, as if this organisation does not already have enough problems getting its act together. India has thus said no. A Pakistan-China combo at SAARC will not only ruin the organisation’s existing balance, but make it easier for the smaller nations to play one nation against the other to bring whatever little progress has been made to a standstill.
The idea of nations being tied together in an economic bloc in order to prevent armed conflict is flawed as long as the political will to make peace is missing. The European Union was created in stages after the second world war precisely because France and Germany wanted to bury the hatchet. If they had not decided to end their fratricide, the EU would have been crippled from day one.
This means SAARC is a meaningless forum as long as Pakistan and India do not come to a political agreement on ending hostilities – on the border or on terrorism. But Pakistan has no such intent as long as it does not wrest Kashmir from India. Peace cannot be bought by one-way concessions, and so effectively India-Pakistan rivalry, abetted by China on Pakistan’s side, will continue indefinitely till either Pakistan is weakened enough to sue for peace, or China finds that it is not worth bankrolling a failing state.
The bottomline for India is thus simple: we have to forget about SAARC, and focus on trade with the other six nations – Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and Maldives. We can open up trade routes, lower tariff barriers, and connect ports and integrate power grids between India and the other six through bilateral basis.
Once the cooperation begins, Pakistan will either be forced to join to gain leverage or it can rot in splendid isolation.
SAARC will not fly with Pakistan on board. We have to go ahead without it by downgrading SAARC, and focusing on bilateral deals with the rest.