The time for SAARC is now

Domestic politics are impacting overall SAARC relations. As the largest SAARC economy, we must strive to minimise differences with our neighbours by understanding how they perceive our policies, and uphold the promise of this regional bloc

December 8, 2012 marked the 43rd anniversary of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) – and reminded us yet again, of the unfulfilled promise of a regional bloc rich in its potential for prosperity. But like the European Union, which took decades to formalize, perhaps enough time has elapsed and enough geopolitics transformed, for the idea to have reached maturation now and compel the region into coalescence.
Of course, this will not happen without the active effort of India. Within SAARC, India is the major global player. The confidence that came from high growth rates and membership of groupings like BRICS and the G20, is feeding India’s ambitions to seek a larger part in global decision-making bodies like the United Nations and the World Bank. Our “Look East” policy towards Southeast Asia and efforts to draw closer to the Arab world through energy imports, trade and labour policies has paid dividends. But the fissures in the politics of South Asia are holding back some of these vital ambitions – for instance, Pakistan’s opposition and the relative indifference of other South Asian countries to India’s aspiration of a permanent membership of the UN Security Council.
Domestic politics too, are impacting overall SAARC relations, and negatively influencing India’s objectives. The future of some states in India such as Assam or Tripura is linked to their SAARC neighbour Bangladesh, while the fate of every SAARC country is linked to their neighbouring state in India. This was evidenced by Tamil Nadu’s reaction to India’s supporting this year’s UN vote against Sri Lanka’s on its human rights record, and the chilling effect of the West Bengal government’s opposition to the Teesta water-sharing agreement on relations with Bangladesh. Some of these differences could have been better contained if there were more trust among the South Asian governments.
For India, then, an effective SAARC is a current imperative. We are 80% of the SAARC economy, occupy three-fifths of the land area of South Asia and share a land border with each SAARC country except Sri Lanka, from which we are separated by only 31 kilometres of sea, and the Maldives further south. Apart from Afghanistan, which has a (very disturbed and disputed) land border with Pakistan, the other SAARC countries can connect only through India, whether it is the short distance between Bhutan and Nepal or the breadth of  India between Pakistan and Bangladesh.
These are borders that we must learn to manage – even if they are viewed as still fairly new in India’s civilizational terms.  The economic fallout of the subcontinent’s Partition has eroded pre-independence transport connectivity and shrunk economic exchanges. The Partition cut India off from its centuries-old neighbours in West Asia – the Arabs and Iran, whose influence on Indian culture and religious composition was so momentous, and on whose energy resources modern India is so dependent. It also cut India off from Southeast Asia into which Hinduism, Buddhism and Indian culture had flowed peacefully for centuries. The occupation of Tibet by China through the 1950s suddenly presented India with a new and hostile neighbour – China – and became a formidable barrier to the continuation of historical connections with the Central Asian states.
This lack of access, viewed earlier as a mere constraint, began to choke India when growth rates began to race towards 9% in the first decade of this century and energy imports became an imperative.
For India to transcend its geography and take its rightful place in the world, it must work to minimise differences with its SAARC neighbours and increase their stake in taking the whole region forward.  An indispensable starting point is to understand how bilateral relations and specifically India’s policies are perceived by its neighbours. This exercise is important not only for the rise of India but equally so for SAARC, because the importance of regions acting and progressing together is highlighted daily by the political upheavals in the Arab world and the economic turbulence in Europe. SAARC countries remain among the poorest in Asia and their social indices such as female literacy and child nutrition are worse than some poorer African countries. Intra- SAARC trade at 5%, as compared to 25% even in ASEAN, is the lowest of any regional bloc in the world. Despite four Indo-Pakistan wars, SAARC remains the least networked with institutions and agreements to minimise the dangers flowing from having two nuclear-weapon powers within, and one on, its border.
Finally, the significance of the success of India as a developing democracy able to achieve high rates of growth while attempting distributive justice as an alternative to the free-market Washington consensus, or the authoritarian Beijing model, should not be underestimated; other developing countries with a similar history of breaking out of colonisation to achieve higher rates of growth, hope to also become increasingly democratic. Although our SAARC neighbours may not acknowledge it, India is the gold standard for them as they genuinely endeavour to build and strengthen their own democratic institutions.
Expanding intra-SAARC trade can be a major impetus if political differences can be resolved through compromise. A virtuous cycle can begin: through the process of compromise, India will be able to access the energy resources it so badly needs to power its growth, while the energy flows can themselves link the economies.
Our cultural commonalities already bind the people. It remains for the governments to imagine a different future.

This Op-Ed was written to mark the launch of ‘Neighbourhood Views of India,’ a compendium of essays by geopolitics experts from the SAARC nations.
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