Most media reports on the eighteenth summit of SAARC remained anxiously focused on the Modi-Sharif intrigue: did they exchange glances, winks, shoulder brushes or under-the-table footsies? At a press briefing with the official Indian spokesperson from India, questions were so persistently centred on their interactions that the weary man had to finally declare: “I think your question is like grass which I mow everyday and it grows again.” The two premiers finally did shake hands at the closing ceremony, causing several news reports to unanimously pronounce: “SAARC Summit salvaged.” One prominent Nepali-language daily even calculated that the handshake lasted thirty-five seconds, and to give it a historical context, noted that last such contact occurred in 2002, between General Musharraf and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The duration of that encounter, however, was not supplied. During the concluding press briefing of the Summit, one journalist, stubborn as the grass that cannot be mowed down, was visibly unsatisfied and demanded to know if the Nepali Prime Minister Sushil Koirala was behind this brief and tremendous union. “What does it matter?” was the bemused reply. And indeed, what does it matter and why does it matter? That big media should be fixated on India-Pakistan’s difficult relationship is unsurprising. But that it would do this to the exclusion of other issues or informed reportage on Southasia’s critical challenges is worrisome.
On the second day of the Summit at Dhulikhel, a retreat 28 kilometres east of Kathmandu and at a safe distance from pesky journalists and invasive cameras, the Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif found himself in the unenviable position of having to, as the Hindu put it, “ensure that the Kathmandu Declaration is not a complete failure.” The Indian media was particularly quick to accuse Pakistan for wanting to malevolently block crucial deals on energy sharing, and road and rail connectivity. Pakistan protested that they needed more time to sort out “internal processes”. At any rate, pegging the Pakistani delegation’s unwillingness to sign certain transportation agreements purely on the India-Pakistan relationship is misleading; it ignores the shifting political terrain of Pakistan, and Sharif’s own tenuous position at home.
Mass protests spearheaded by Imran Khan and Tahir ul-Qadri, demanding that Nawaz Sharif step down, ended only as recently as September. This has considerably weakened Sharif’s position vis-a-vis the Pakistani army, which has been waiting in the wings to tip the civil-military relation in its favour. Sharif also faces strong objections to the road and rail agreements from the truckers and transporters associations. Pakistan did eventually sign the SAARC Framework Agreement for Energy Cooperation. The remaining two agreements will be negotiated in the coming three months and signed six months later, during the next meeting of the SAARC Council of Ministers. This should serve as reminder that internal politics of a nation state cannot simply be disavowed for a wishful idea of regional connectivity.
By giving excessive coverage to the symbolic aspects of India-Pakistan’s relationship and the concerned personalities, the media did more than just lazy reporting. They also missed out on an important chance to clarify the crucial intersections of national politics and regional aspirations.
~ Shubhanga Pandey and Puja Sen are Assistant Editors with Himal Southasian.