All regional groupings have their peculiarities, but none more so than SAARC. It may seem pedantic to ask how many countries constitute SAARC, since any student of high-school civics would know the answer. Yet it could also be persuasively argued, by anybody with an average adolescent’s social sensitivity, that SAARC is in reality made up of not eight, but nine members. The giant country that lies at the heart of Southasia is, after all, an amalgam of two distinct parts. It comprises the great Indian middle class, the stuff of much contemporary myth; but then there is the rest of India as well, a teeming mass of struggling, suffering humanity that does not even get to field a ‘B-team’ in international forums. That, though, is largely immaterial, since the ‘A-team’, the ‘nation’ at the heart of SAARC, is roughly the size of Britain, Germany, Italy and France put together.
Yet the ‘nation’ that, by all canons of geopolitical logic, should be the fulcrum around which SAARC revolves, is in fact a reluctant participant, since the ‘India A’ team entertains vaulting ambitions that go far beyond the narrow regional framework in which history has cast it. If priorities were to be assessed by media coverage, it would appear that ‘India A’ has little interest in the realities of life for the fifth of humanity that people Southasia. ‘India A’ would much rather engage in unending celebrations of the corporate takeovers engineered by the big-game hunters among its business community, for sums that just two decades back were roughly the magnitude of the entire country’s balance-of-payments deficit.
A mere decade since an Indian first set a tentative foot within that most exclusive of clubs – Forbes magazine’s annual celebration of ostentation, otherwise known as the “rich list” – today ‘India A’ has over 50 members in that august company, of whom no fewer than four are in the top ten. Indeed, this is a ‘nation’ that has assumed the identity of a historic, civilisational entity; and in that process, it has denied its neighbours a share of the legacy over which they have a right. ‘India A’ has also twisted that legacy to serve the narrow purposes of nation-state politics, rather than larger civilisational values. As it assumes the mandate to speak on behalf of an entire civilisation, ‘India A’ will bring to the table a unique sensibility, one that seems curiously out of step with the rest. At this juncture, most Southasian countries have weakly institutionalised structures of governance.
As of this writing, Nepal is without a government; Pakistan and Bangladesh are struggling to find ways towards democratic order, with few viable institutions of political integration, and under real threat that the national armies will step into the breach; for the last two years, Sri Lanka has maintained the appearance of cabinet governance, but has not quite succeeded in masking the existence of a narrow coterie exercising power, in the face of the alienation of the Tamil people and the embitterment of virtually all sections of the traditional Sinhala elite; and Afghanistan has problems that have remained unaddressed for the last seven years, even as it seeks to reckon with national elections due in just over a year. Against this bleak backdrop, ‘India A’ has, seemingly as a gesture of confidence in its manifest destiny, opted for political instability, all in the cause of pursuing a morally dubious nuclear deal with the US. This is a deal that involves weapons never meant for use, the sole purpose, perhaps, to placate the unfulfilled hubris of ‘India A’; and an energy option that provides less than five percent of India’s electricity generation, and will never amount to much more.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, captaining ‘India A’ at the G8 summit in Japan in early July, concluded what he called a ‘happy’ set of discussions with other leaders, and basked in the fact that never before had relations with the US been so good. He is unlikely to have similar words of celebration to enter into the public record either during or after the SAARC Summit in Colombo. The day the ‘India A’ captain left for the conclave of the privileged in Japan, the country was in a state of shock after a horrendous atrocity against its embassy in Kabul.
The suicide bombing killed four Indian nationals and ten times that number of Afghans. Almost as a conditioned reflex, every journalist with the authority to pronounce on such matters certified that the episode bore the fingerprints of Pakistan’s shadowy intelligence agencies. ‘India A’ is quick with its recriminations, though not quite so forthcoming with offers of solidarity and support. Just the day before the Kabul outrage, a US air attack killed some 30 people in a village in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. The victims were, the Afghan government says, overwhelmingly women and children, engaged in actions no more dangerous than participating in a wedding procession.
The US denied this claim, though, and said that its action, which was aimed at a legitimate military target, was entirely above board. And once the world’s policeman had spoken, there was no room for any other opinion. But even while George W Bush, the accidental president who has sustained his corrupt regime on a foundation of fear, is widely recognised as perhaps the greatest political disaster of the last half-century, he continues to enjoy a healthy level of popularity in ‘India A’. A recent global survey found that the president, who has spent most of his second term in office with a domestic approval rating well below 40 percent, enjoyed the approbation of some 62 percent of Indian respondents.
To stay apart from the herd may seem a healthy attribute. But in this case, ‘India A’ is only feeding delusions about rising to world eminence under US sponsorship. The ‘India A’ captain has, with great deliberation, terminated an arrangement that had propped up his authority for four years, in the expectation that, with the coercive power of the US acting as the wind in his sails, he would be able to convince the world that an opportunistic compromise, which reduces even the hugely discriminatory global nuclear regime to absurdity, is really in its best interests. When most of the world is seeking to work itself out of the fatal embrace of the US, ‘India A’ is wrapping itself ever deeper in the fading superpower’s benediction, seeing the arrangement as a viable shortcut to imperial glory.
As a regional grouping, SAARC is the loser in this, since the pretensions of ‘India A’ obstruct a well-meaning engagement by the giant country that is, geographically and in every other sense, the fulcrum of the region’s economy. When the regional conclave gathers in August, perhaps its first order of business should be the puncturing of all delusions. Only once this is done, and once ‘India B’ assumes its rightful place at the diplomatic high table, will SAARC be able to find for itself a new role and relevance.
~ Sukumar Muralidharan is a Delhi-based journalist.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
Flickr / girl.from.melbourne
An early monsoon
On June 16 2013, the India Meteorological Department confirmed the early arrival of monsoon rains across the whole of India. Full coverage was not expected until the middle of July, making farmers hopeful for a bumper crop.
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Somnath Mukherji explores the sights, sounds, smells and feelings that monsoon evokes. (June 2007)
Venu Madhav Govindu notes the 'fundamental importance' of a good monsoon for both city and rural dwellers. (August 2003)