Regional cooperation is dead. Long live regional cooperation

However utopian it may seem, a South Asian confederation may actually work. The fate of the people of South Asia cannot be left to nation-states alone. There is a collective regional life beyond the narrow confines of SAARC.

The postponement of the SAARC Summit in November caused a fair amount of breastbeating, with partisans taking one side or the other on India's action. But one striking thing about the postponement is that, in the end, no one, except perhaps the denizens of the SAARC Secretariat in Kathmandu, seemed particularly disappointed.

No one is talking about burying SAARC even though it is a largely unloved organisation. Even its demise, should that happen, will not be particularly mourned. When the Association was formally launched in 1985, there were sceptics, but there was a real hope that the conclave would amount to something, that it would make a difference to the affairs of South Asia, and that in some ineffable way, it reflected the desire of the peoples of the region to come together.

Fourteen years later, however, the sceptics seem to have been proven right. The governments of the region have done little to invigorate the Association and to point it in the direction of anything that would capture the imagination of the peoples of South Asia. The best that one can say about SAARC is that a certain amount of "social capital" has been generated: expert and technical committee meetings, NGO meetings under the aegis of SAARC, and the summits have brought South Asians in various fields and at various levels into contact with each other at regular intervals, leading to a certain amount of camaraderie and trust.

Moribund status
What is wrong with SAARC? The lamentations are familiar enough, but virtually everything seems to have gone awry. By refusing to discuss bilateral and contentious issues, the Association has been depoliticised to the point of irrelevancy. SAARC is so much a creature of the member governments that it has no capacity to do anything creative and worthwhile. The Secretariat is not only unable to transcend the usual political objections of its member governments, it does not even have the human resources to offer any additional perspectives on regional issues. It has no data banks or intellectual capital that it can bring to bear, to transform the way in which the region looks at various problems. SAARC also stands accused of having taken on too much and having dissipated its energies.

The dozen or so areas of cooperation in SAARC are far too much for an Association without a bureaucracy of its own to handle. SAARC's inability to show anything for its decade and a half of labours has led to growing cynicism and demoralisation even among those who had championed its cause—the smaller states of the region.

There are other, more partisan digs at SAARC. Some think that India wants to subvert the organisation because it fears a gang-up of its smaller neighbours, including Pakistan. Others argue that Pakistan wants to stall the Association because it fears that India will dominate it. Yet others cast dark looks at the small states who they believe lost interest in SAARC when they couldn't embarrass India in it, and when in any case they cut their own deals with India on river waters or trade.

This seems like a classic case of over-determination: any one of these explanations of what is wrong with SAARC appears sufficient to account for its moribund status. It is hopeless to try and disentangle the truth, capital T. The question is: what is to be done? Can one refurbish SAARC? Or should the region adopt a different strategy altogether? If so, what are the alternatives?

On balance, after 15 years, it seems safe to say that SAARC is beyond tinkering and rehabilitation. It represents some collective, rather repressed fantasy, and representations of that kind have their own usefulness. But it does not seem worthwhile to invest much more in it. Regional Cooperation in South Asia could be configured at four alternative levels. The first level is bilateral cooperation between the various countries of the region, particularly between India and its neighbours. This is cooperation in the traditional mould, at an inter-state level, government to government.

Obviously, there is a fair amount of this kind of cooperation already. India and Nepal cooperate in military, economic, and developmental areas. Most recently, agreements on trade and transit, and on Mahakali have underscored their ability to work together in a business-like way. India and Bangladesh have signed a river-water sharing agreement. They may be close to agreement on the trans-shipment of Indian goods via Bangladeshi territory. The two countries are also talking about a free trade agreement. India and Sri Lanka have just signed a bilateral free trade agreement, and although this has run into trouble with some sections of Indian and Sri Lankan business, it is likely to become operational sooner or later. In effect, then, India and its smaller neighbours are doing bilaterally what they could not do within SAARC, namely, cooperate on the two great areas of regional endeavour—rivers and trade.

The second level of regional cooperation is sub-regional. Within SAARC, there has been a growing move to consider the possibility of sub-regional cooperation. There are three forms of sub-regional cooperation. The first would have a sub-set of SAARC cooperate in areas that do not necessarily involve the entire region. For instance, managing the cis-Himalayan ecology is essentially a project among Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal.

The second form of sub-regionalism would be built around the idea that cooperation could be restricted to those countries within SAARC that were in agreement on a project, leaving those who opted out, as it were. Some have argued that a sub-regional free trade area between India and its smaller neighbours constitutes a viable and rational scheme and that Pakistan could simply choose to opt out.

The third form of sub-regional cooperation would be to organise collaboration according to a transnational notion of the sub-region. In this conception, northeast India, West Bengal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal is a sub-region encompassing geographical, economic, ecological, and even cultural unities, which mark it off from the rest of the Subcontinent. It is, therefore, a more rational basis for cooperation. Similarly, southern India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives is a more rational space for common action. In the northwest quadrant of South Asia, Kashmir, Indian Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Pakistan would seem to have more in common with each other than with the rest of the region.

Within SAARC, this vision ran up against the objections of Pakistan and Sri Lanka at the last summit. But it is time to resurrect the idea, even if outside SAARC given that Pakistan and perhaps Sri Lanka continue to oppose such a development. Certainly a northeastern quadrant community is an idea whose time has come. Whether it should be expanded to include Burma and Thailand in a Bay of Bengal community is a key consideration, but clearly something should begin in this vital zone.

South Asian Parliament

The next two forms of regional cooperation are less statist in conception. The first of these is to institute a South Asian Parliament. M.L. Sondhi of Jawaharlal Nehru University and Srikant Paranjape of Pune University have popularised the idea of an assembly that would have representatives from the entire region, which would debate regional issues outside the strict confines of governmental policy. Interestingly, the Congress party's manifesto during India's last general elections endorsed the idea of such a body.

The scheme is attractive, but, as things stand, perhaps too visionary. Presumably the representatives to the regional assembly would be elected, as they are in the European Parliament. This is the difficulty, that any country in South Asia would agree to hold such elections on their soil, and to give the resulting assembly any powers whatsoever, seems inconceivable.

On the other hand, there is the kernel of an idea here that may be built upon to advantage. Is it inconceivable that South Asia could devise a non-official parliament or assembly without elections, drawing its members by nomination? Members would be nominated by a set of private institutions dedicated to the cause of regional cooperation in each country. These institutions would be responsible for selecting individuals from various walks of life who have displayed an interest and expertise in regional affairs. These 'parliamentarians' would meet regularly, in different countries and in different locales (not just the capital cities), to debate regional issues and to put ideas and perspectives on the table that seem to be unfashionable, even utopian, as a way of articulating an alternative reality for the region as a whole.

Finally, regional cooperation might be organised by networks of non- governmental organisations active in their respective civil societies. To some extent, this is already happening. SAARC has been a catalyst in letting loose the idea of NGOs getting together and talking to each other, sharing ideas and information, and drawing inspiration from each other. These informal but often very material and strong ties have been around for at least the last two decades and have grown in density over that time. These ties can grow, given the democratic consolidation that seems to have occurred throughout the region (notwithstanding the Musharraf coup in Pakistan) and given that communication has become easier via the Internet.

One could relate this form of regional cooperation to the idea of a South Asian parliament. It may be possible to construct a regional parliament from representatives selected by the NGO community. In any case, the NGO networks constitute decentralised nodes of regional collaboration among different sectors of regional civil society. They may work with the tacit approval of their governments, but they may also work as a resistive force against the iniquities and inanities of their politicians and officials. Their collective, often unnoticed, endeavours are shaping the region, willy-nilly. It may be possible to infuse their efforts with an even sharper sense of regional responsibility and focus.

Regional cooperation is dead, long live regional cooperation. SAARC may be a dead end or terminally stalled, but there is a collective regional life beyond the narrow confines of SAARC. However utopian, a South Asian confederation need not be a cloud-cuckooland rumination. In this confederal system, nation-states would continue to exist and garner respect. But the fate of people need not be left to nation-states and their agencies. Other centres of power and ideas can cohabit the political space of South Asia and are in any case doing so. The question is how to bring them together to shape a better future for what will soon be the most populated region on the face of the earth.

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