Modi’s Video-Conference: Will it revive SAARC?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a commendable initiative in video-conferencing with the SAARC heads of states in expression of solidarity as the Corona pandemic invades the entire world including the south Asian region. The response from all the SAARC leaders was overwhelming and equally praiseworthy except from Pakistan whose attitude and presentation left a bad taste in the mouth. The head of Pakistan government did not show up and worse, in a humongous humanitarian crisis, the Pakistani representative, Zafar Mirza, junior health minister displayed their Kashmir obsession out of nowhere.

Yet, some observers of South Asian politics express the unfounded optimism that “India has done well to revive SAARC.” My attempt here is to contest this perception as SAARC is quite unlikely to be put back on rails with Pakistan in the bandwagon. But first, let us recap the unprecedented video-conference and discuss its possible impact on South Asians.

It was quite creative of Modi to invite the 8 SAARC leaders to a video-conference on 15 March as combined efforts and joint action may tackle this deadly virus better than fighting it alone. Quite clearly, Modi began by saying, “we can respond best by coming together, not growing apart”. That was a call for unity in an emergency of this magnitude which was responded warmly by the SAARC Leaders.

All of them except Pakistan thanked the Indian Prime Minister which sounded more than the usual diplomatic courtesy. Again all of them except Pakistan shared the situation arising out of corona attack on their respective counties, the steps they have taken and the problems they are facing. They also made helpful suggestions on how to fight the virus in the most populous region of the world, South Asia.

Quite a few ideas came up and promises made. By far the biggest initiative was the creation of an Emergency Covid-19 Fund with voluntary contributions made from the member countries starting with Modi’s offer of $10million. India also offered to raise a Rapid Response Team of doctors and specialists for SAARC. It suggested providing online training to the emergency staff of these countries: activate the SAARC Disaster Management Centre and draw up the Pandemic protocols.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina proposed the creation of a SAARC Institution to fight the contagious diseases that pose a threat to public health and offered to host it. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani shared the problem of their long open border with Iran, one of the worst-affected countries. Bhutan Prime Minister Lotay Tshering and Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih shared the economic fallout of the pandemic as their counties GDPs are tourism-dependent. Nepali Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, recovering from a medical operation himself, attended the meeting and shared the steps taken by his government.

The Pakistani minister did not say anything on the affect of corona in his country which seems to be handling it poorly, but brought up Kashmir and China in a pathetic attempt to politicise a solidarity meeting on the pandemic. Even the Opposition leaders in India have heavily criticised Pakistani attitude and have suggested that “Pakistan should be quarantined globally”.  At the end of the day, it was a good informal meeting of the leaders since the suspension of SAARC summit in 2016, in the wake of the terror attack in Uri.

Will it revive SAARC? Sources in the Indian External Affairs suggest “it is too premature to discuss the revival of SAARC. It is difficult to say if it can lead to any other initiative”. At the same time, the violation of ceasefire on LoC by Pakistan continues intermittently. The terrorists from Pakistan keep sneaking into Indian Territory and are engaged by the Indian paramilitary and the army.

Besides, the Pakistani President Arif Ali was in China a few days ago in expression of their solidarity with it where Corona broke out first. From the Indian point of view, and by extension for SAARC, Pakistan and China discussed Kashmir and mentioned it in their joint communiqué. Beijing assured Islamabad that it was “watching the developments in Kashmir, opposes any unilateral actions that complicate the situation in Kashmir”.

Both Pakistan and China reiterated their agreement to build the China-Pakistan Economic Order (CPEC) running through the Indian Territory occupied by Pakistan since 1947. Furthermore, they resolved to make CPEC a high quality demonstration project of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Recall that India has been consistently opposing the BRI. The MEA says “India is opposed to any action by other countries to change status quo in Pak-occupied J&K. Such illegal actions will never be accepted by India”.

In views of such belligerent posturing by Pakistan with tacit backing of China, how real and desirable is the revival of SAARC? South Asian observer Prof. SD Muni in a recent article says the initiative by Modi on fighting the epidemic may not fully succeed in eradicating the virus from South Asia, but it may have done enough to bring SAARC back to life which “has been in ICU since 2015 on account of India-Pakistan non-engagement”.

Muni argues, India seems to be keen on reviving SAARC for its failure on two counts – first, its lack of success on neighbourhood first policy launched with much fanfare in 2014, second, New Delhi’s failure to isolate Pakistan. He contends that “Pakistan is nowhere near being isolated”. Saudi Arabia is backing it in OIC; China is already a strong ally of Pakistan and even the US is working with Pakistan on Afghanistan.

Muni’s second argument is that New Delhi’s substitute for SAARC, the Bay of Bengal initiative for Multi-sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec) is not moving forward as expected. Besides, Myanmar and Thailand, two members of Bimstec are economically and strategically closer to China. India-Pakistan tension is not the only obstacle to the growth of SAARC, other members are also wary of India and are dealing with China as a balancing act.

Muni’s suggestion on dealing with Pakistan in SAARC is confusing. He is suggesting Pakistan might isolate itself from SAARC, which is welcome, at the same time, he is saying India could retaliate Pakistani terrorism on Indian soil by Balakot-like strikes without bringing the bilateral  problem into the regional forum. Finally, he suggests that revival of SAARC will meet the challenge of BRI.

Let us be clear that SAARC could be revived without Pakistan on board. Any other suggestion on SAARC that involves Pakistan as a member is improbable. The confrontation with Pakistan and competition with China are not over, and will continue for a long time.

Let us not ignore that India has plans to retrieve POK even at the cost of a war. The present Army General has gone public on this, and Defence Minister too has said that POK will be a part of India. That will remove any possibility of détente between India and Pakistan. They will be at daggers drawn for ever unless Pakistan dismembers as a State or just reduces to a small vassal State, comprising Punjab and Sind provinces, of some bigger power like China. There is hardly any room for optimism of SAARC with Pakistan.



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