Missed opportunitiesSAARC gatherings on UNGA sidelines offer India and Pakistan a rare chance to talk. But they don’t.
The failure of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) ministerial-level delegation to sit on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) for four years in a row is suggestive of the vegetative state of the regional body. Traditionally, the ministerial gathering set vital regional agenda and acted as a “tone setter” for the high level summit. There has been no SAARC summit since Kathmandu 2014. With no summit, Nepal has failed to hand over its presidency of the body. As such it was the country’s responsibility to hold the gathering in New York this year as well. But despite Nepal’s valiant efforts, it was not meant to be. Frankly, Nepal or any other intermediary can do precious little to revive the moribund organisation unless India and Pakistan agree not to let their bilateral animosity affect regional cooperation. India’s consistent stand not to sit for the summit is especially problematic: even this year, its foreign minister arrived at the UNGA rather late. In its efforts to isolate Pakistan, India has been promoting the BIMSTEC instead. But then, the two regional organisations have different roles and one cannot substitute for another.
The SAARC came into being in 1985 at the initiative of then Bangladeshi President Ziaur Rahman, who consistently championed the idea of regional cooperation. His main backer in the initiative was King Birendra of Nepal. India and Pakistan were sceptical of the idea. While India feared smaller states in South Asia were trying to gang up against it, for Pakistan, the fear was that India would dominate the grouping. So, in this way, the shadow of the Indo-Pak rivalry had fallen on the SAARC since its inception. The idea of a free trade area has been limited to paper, as South Asia continues to be the least integrated region in the world. If you have to fly to Islamabad from Kathmandu (a distance of under 1,400km), you have to do so via Dubai (for a total distance of over 5,000).
Unlike India, other SAARC member countries have traditionally seen the regional body with great hope, as a vehicle for greater trade and people-to-people connectivity. As India with its central landmass acts as a fulcrum in the region, there can be no meaningful cooperation between the seven other members unless New Delhi is ready to play the role of a facilitator. Its idea of isolating Pakistan on all fronts is also misplaced. Even if they cannot see eye to eye, there should at least be forums where the two sides can sit down and talk. For instance, who can forget the iconic handshake between Pervez Musharraf and Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2002? In international diplomacy, you can never stop talking. Often, even if the two sides are polar opposites, just the process of talking can throw up solutions, especially in neutral venues like New York. If India and Pakistan can play cricket at neutral venues, as they most recently did in Colombo, why can’t they sit for talks in New York?