SAARC has had the thankless task of bringing together countries that are quite disparate in size, economic scale and geopolitical clout, and to give them a sense unity and direction. Since its birth more than a decade ago, the organisation has been compared to other regional groupings such as ASEAN and the European Community and found to be wanting. South Asians have enjoyed lampooning their own organisation for its impotence and ineffectiveness, little realising that in doing so they are merely laughing at themselves. Not least because of the ingrained and self-serving cynicism of South Asia´s educated classes, SAARC is barely the sum of its parts—the summits, the Secretariat, and meetings of bureaucrats with national agendas. And yet, there remains the possibility of making something of this organisation, to convert it into a dynamic and creative institution to promote a South Asian coming together as much.
At the same time, outside of the SAARC organisation, there is progress being achieved by something called the “SAARC process”, which represents the instinctive urge of South Asian civil society to reach out across existing borders and assert historical and cultural identities. Activists have been meeting actively, and cross-South Asian meetings have grown from a trickle to a torrent. It was when businessmen began to show interest in regional cooperation a few years ago, however, that the SAARC process became ´real´ in the minds of many. If they thought they could make money off this thing, then it must really be happening!
While individual countries will remain cautious in certain sensitive areas—such as Bangladesh in transit, Nepal on water or Pakistan on trade—there is now agreement on the need to give SAARC some teeth. This seriousness with SAARC extends to all sectors: the foreign offices of the member governments, the Secretariat, in the various national chambers of commerce and industry, and, individuals and nongovernmental groups. They all see the possibility of improving the quality of life in South Asia by thinking regionally, acting locally.
Sprucing Up the Secretariat. The SAARC Secretariat, situated a stone´s throw from the royal palace in Kathmandu, is asked to play the role of an effective impresario at the centre of the regional mobilisation. Its role will be to dare recalcitrant government to place radical path-breaking work plans before the governing Council of Ministers, and to take the summits as far as the presidents, prime ministers and kings will let it go. The Secretariat must also now take on a hands-on role of facilitating (not monitoring) contact among the thousands of voluntary groups of South Asia, who represent the people more than the bureaucrat or the businessman does.
For all the hopes that are pinned on it, the Secretariat will sink or swim depending on the abilities of the secretaries general that get appointed. It is Sri Lanka´s turn to choose the next top official, and after that comes Bhutan´s before the cycle is complete. Meanwhile, it has to be conceded that the rotational system of this high office and the limited two-year terms are incongruous and hark back to the times when not much was expected of the organisation. Both have to change for the sake of long-term perspective and continuity.
Poor Activism, Worse Scholarship. There are obvious limits to what the SAARC organisation can achieve, but none whatsoever with the SAARC process. Having been relegated to nationalist intellectual ghettos for half a century, South Asian professionals—journalists, doctors, scholars, filmmakers, activists, librarians, teachers and hundreds of other categories—are discovering each other´s world. Activities are proliferating, and there is no day when somewhere, some people are not meeting to discuss a regional subject—and this does not even include the 400 or so activities spawned annually by the official SAARC.
Unfortunately, numbers do not mean quality. While it is well-known that the majority of the inter-governmental activities organised by the Secretariat are quite dysfunctional, this problem also exists with the meetings called by NGOs. Partly, this is because South Asian meetings have become a fad and many individuals without commitment come along for the ride. There is “donor interest” in South Asian activities and these meetings come fully ´funded´, but most have not been able to get beyond the hail-fellow-well-met stage. The declarations of “solidarity” are getting a little tiresome, and it is time for action, for groups must go beyond benign regionalism and challenge and goad their societies and governments so as to bring down suspicion and promote cooperation.
If the obstacles to cross-border contact—which include visa restrictions, hassles with transportation, and poor telecommunications—were to be reduced, there is no doubt that there will be more instinctive gathering of South Asians. It should be possible to meet even without ´funding´, for example, by taking surface transport to a city in a neighbouring country. (This is now feasible between Bangladesh, India and Nepal with the Indian government´s decision to allow dual entry visas for Bangladeshis visiting Nepal—journalists, activists and others are already taking the overland route to South Asian cooperation.)
Part of the reason why SAARC was not more effective in its first decade is that it was not challenged enough by academia and media. As with NGOs, there was a lack of seriousness among the majority of scholars and commentators who took up the study of South Asian regionalism. Because they saw the organisation as a non-starter, many good researchers stayed away from SAARC studies, leaving the field open for mediocrity to flourish. Now that SAARC is slowly moving to centre stage, good scholars and journalists, too, are discovering regionalism, but there will be a time lag before their work makes an impact.
It has not helped either that the scholars who have deigned to study SAARC have extremely close links with officialdom in each of their countries, which affects their critical faculties. Neither has it been all to the good that SAARC studies have been to a large extent monopolised by former bureaucrats, who as part of the “system” are hardly likely to put radical ideas into the slipstream. Dull and descriptive writing is the bane of the establishment media and scholarship, which produces voluminous literature—on refugees, development, water resources and what have you—without providing too much light. If meritocracy comes to South Asian studies, the SAARC organisation will flourish.
Great India. When academia begins to get serious on SAARC, it will find that the single challenge to regionalism in South Asia is geographical—the sheer size of India in the middle, bordering on each South Asian country, none of which borders each other. India´s overwhelming presence, beyond physical expanse, its population and diversity, its economy and its geopolitical clout as a regional superpower, makes talk of regional cooperation unreal to some. The physical and demographic proportions of the country, its economy, history and political power, then, may be seen to set objective limits to the growth of SAARC as a regional organisation.
Beyond size, there is a psychological barrier posed by the fact that the map or satellite image of South Asia is essentially a picture of India´s coastline. The shores of both Pakistan and Bangladesh fail to provide distinctive features to divert from India´s all-pervasive image. Then, there is the rich history of South Asia, which, after 1947, has been essentially cornered by India as its own legacy. Even the Red Fort or Taj Mahal, which Muslim Pakistan might have taken as its nationalist icons (it lacks many), happen to fall within India.
In the UN General Assembly, the one-nation, one-vote formula works because the incongruities are ironed by the large number of members. SAARC´s membership, however, is divided into four tiers: diminutive Maldives (250,000) and Bhutan (650,000 or so); small Sri Lanka (18 million) and Nepal (22 million); mid-sized Pakistan (120 million) and Bangladesh (125 million); and a gigantic India, with more than 900 million people, standing alone and beyond all comparison. There is, therefore, a certain unreality behind an institution which gives “equal time” at the summits to an Indian Prime Minister and the Maldives´ Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who speaks for a population one-hundredth the size of metropolitan Bombay.
Defining the limits of SAARC is an important part of “getting serious” about the organisation, and without recognising the reality of India´s role and position there can be no proper analysis. In fact, its very centrality requires that India play a prominent role in fostering regionalism. But it is how it plays this role that will set the tone for the organisation as a whole. One can look for some parallels in the ASEAN region, where Indonesia also has an overwhelming presence. That grouping began to work and the economic boom was forthcoming after Indonesia deliberately decided to maintain a low profile. Will the Gujral Doctrine of Foreign Minister I. K. Gujral give way to the Gujral Doctrine of Prime Minister I.K. Gujral? One already sees the beginnings of a new Indian attitude, which also indicates a New Delhi more comfortable with itself.
Fortuitously, the sea-change in perception of regional cooperation in South Asia happened as India took up the chairmanship of SAARC at the New Delhi Summit of April 1995. The moment had come for this predominant South Asian, chairing the organisation for the second time, to show its fealty to regionalism, so long derided by Indian commentators as merely an attempt at ganging up by India´s neighbours.
The fall of P.V. Narashimha Rao´s government brought to power in New Delhi a coalition government representing the regions of India, which did not have the fierce centricism of the national parties of the Delhi Raj. The United Front´s attitude was certainly more amenable to Subcontinental regionalism, and, as Foreign Minister, the dovish Mr Gujral was the ideal person to lead India into the SAARC chairmanship. There also seems to have been a fine confluence in the working relationship of SAARC´s serving secretary general, Pakistan´s Naeem U Hasan, and the hierarchy in South Block looking after regional affairs.
Hopefully, the change in regional perception in New Delhi is not a momentary blip, and the continuities that the Indian Foreign Service represents will mean that India´s transformed attitude regarding the region will be maintained by the governments to come, whatever their makeup.
Regionalism and ´Regionalism´. India´s size and diversity are not necessarily a fearsome presence for other South Asians, if one takes the long look of history. To begin with, while India might indeed be a great power at the centre, it has regions that impinge on each of its neighbours. By promoting regionalism through SAARC, therefore, India will be promoting the advancement of each of these regions. Any advantage that accrues from SAARC regionalism will also benefit each of the regions of India that borders the neighours.
The regionalism of SAARC and the ´regionalism´ seen within the nation states are two separate concepts which, ironically, now seem to point in the same direction. SAARC regionalism means the coming together of different countries for the sake of peace and development. Intra-state regionalism, while an anathema to so many in the national establishments, indicates the release of native genius in the various parts of each large country, and a flowering of identity and assertion long suppressed by the nationalist strait-jacket.
The decade ahead, therefore, should see evolution at the two extremes of the nation state at the centre, the entity left behind by the colonialists. There will be South Asia-wide cooperation as a vital activity to bring separated peoples together, even while another process provides for a devolution of powers from the capitals (of all, perhaps, but the smallest states) to the regions. The mechanism will differ from country to country, but only this formula will provide a future for all South Asians.
It would be incumbent upon the “SAARC organisation” to promote inter-state cooperation. It would be the responsibility of the “SAARC process”, or the outside-of-government representatives of the South Asian people, acting within their own countries and cross-pollinating across the borders, to push forward the agenda of within-state regionalism and decentralisation.
South Asia is headed into uncharted waters in the years ahead, as education, communication, trade and technology make mincemeat of old understandings and expectations. Without doubt, the SAARC organisation will be there promoting cooperation among governments; and without doubt, too, individuals and groups will be trying to make the region after their own visions of what should be.
In the uncertain times ahead, whenever the question of utility of SAARC arises, and whenever there is a need to seek direction for any cooperative South Asian activity, the test should always be in what way the mass of the people can benefit. There are too many vested interests, among politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen, and even journalists and activists. And so if barriers are to be brought down, or in some cases even maintained, let this alone be the test—what is in it for the people…