The editors of Himal believe that India’s chairmanship of SAARC, beginning the SAARC Summit of 3-4 April, is a good opportunity to strike a firm blow for Southasian regionalism. It was important to ask questions about India’s understanding of regionalism, and so we sent off 18 questions to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. We also received a level of assurance that the answers would come through, but they have not as yet. We though readers of Himal might like to see the questions.
Questions for Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India:
- We have begun to see an acceptance of the term ‘Southasia’ in the Indian discourse, which was not there before. Do you believe that the Indian government and intelligentsia are today more aware of the need for Southasian integration than they were, say, a decade ago? What do you think has led to this change?
- India is not only large in every sense, but it borders every other country in the region while few of the others adjoin each other. What kind of regional doctrine would you like to propound to address the asymmetry of Southasia as a regional block?
- Talk of Southasian regionalism is seen with suspicion by some, as a part of India’s attempt to economically overwhelm its neighbours. Others see regionalism as a ganging-up by the smaller neighbours against India. How do you react to these extreme propositions?
- What do you feel are the common challenges and priorities for the countries of Southasia, which an active regional framework can help tackle? Is there any prospect for common planning and implementation for social and economic development of the region as a whole?
- Some say that regionalism’s direct impact will be not by way of development programmes, but through economic growth that will touch all 1.4 billion people of the region. Would you agree?
- We learn that ‘interconnectivity’ is what the Indian government hopes to push for as a way of promoting regional integration, even as India takes on the chairmanship of SAARC. What are the specific steps you intend to take towards this goal?
- Which comes first, economic integration or political engagement? Can building roads, rail networks, power grids and other infrastructural links across borders achieve integration in the absence of political engagement?
- You have spoken of making borders irrelevant. And yet it is India that is promoting the hardening of frontiers, with thousands of kilometres of barbed-wire fences along its eastern and western borders. How do you see the process of dismantling beginning, even as fences are in the process of being put up?
- Till now, Southasian regionalism has been limited to relationships between the national capitals. Do you see a need to expand outwards from capital-centric regionalism? Should not India allow its constituent states, which may be direct beneficiaries of regional integration, to communicate more easily across international frontiers?
- The India-Pakistan rivalry is said to keep all Southasia hostage. Do you think that the relationship is improving, and if so, how do you see this impacting the rest of the region?
- How do you react to General Musharraf’s decision not to attend the SAARC summit? Does it affect the cause of regionalism that a bilateral matter is impacting on a regional summit?
- If there were one matter that has the region as a whole waiting for resolution, it would be that of Kashmir. What can you tell the Southasian audience about the prospects for resolving the Kashmir matter in the coming year?
- New Delhi’s relationship with Dhaka is fraught with tension, and this is reflected in India’s inability to buy Bangladeshi natural gas. How would you proceed to develop the relationship, and overcome suspicions in Dhaka about Indian intentions?
- The development of Sri Lanka-India economic links is held out as an example for other bilateral relationships in Southasia. What is so significant about this relationship that it is to be emulated?
- Pakistan may be a different case. But how does India deal with the perception that it influences the domestic politics of its other smaller neighbours?
- Many observers in the region notice a selectivity in India’s engagement with the neighbours. For example, it was laudably supportive of the Nepali people’s fight for peace and democracy, but has played a hands-off role in the Bhutani refugee crisis for more than a decade. How do you find a balance between principle and practicality?
- How do you visualise the broader Southasian region? While Afghanistan has been included in SAARC recently, Burma and the Tibet Autonomous Region have also had close economic and cultural ties with Southasia throughout history. Is there a need to look at this larger area when thinking regionally, so that we are closer to the historical evolution of our region?
- India takes over as chair of SAARC soon. What are the specific steps you plan to take to rejuvenate the organisation during India’s chairmanship?