The Indian government led by the hard-line Bharatiya Janata Party has put a spoke in the wheel of SAARC (South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation), by forcing a postponement of the summit, scheduled for 26-28 November in Kathmandu. In doing so, New Delhi has seriously weakened the only regional cooperation body of South Asia, and wantonly antagonised its neighbours. Ironically, it may end up harming its own interests.
India’s motives in opposing the summit were wholly Pakistan-specific and devoid of any universal considerations or political principle. It asked for an indefinite deferment of the meeting of the seven heads of government because the military coup d’etat in Pakistan has caused “concern and disquiet” in “the region and beyond”, and that this would not make for a “productive” meeting —a concern not shared by the other six SAARC member-states.
In the 14 years of its existence, SAARC has dealt with many non-democratic leaders, including Gen Ziaur Rehman of Bangladesh, who was especially enthusiastic on regional cooperation and had energetically campaigned for setting up the regional organisation. His successor, Gen H.M. Ershad, presided over the first SAARC summit in 1985. Pakistan’s military ruler Gen Zia-ul Haq was also an active participant in that summit and other SAARC conferences. As has been the King of Bhutan, no democrat himself.
India’s rationale for opposing the summit thus involves double standards. New Delhi is loath to deal with Gen Musharraf — not because it refuses in principle to have any truck with military rulers or dictators —but because that would interfere with its present priorities. India has for decades happily dealt with non-democracies, from Sukarno and Suharto’s Indonesia to Idi Amin’s Uganda. But today, India is keen to put Islamabad on the defensive, and persuade that India alone in South Asia is a stable, ‘responsible’, democracy and hence a pre-eminent strategic ally for the only remaining World Power.
India has not pronounced directly on the military coup and subsequent developments in Pakistan. It has refused to talk to the Musharraf government except on the condition that it stops aiding what New Delhi describes as “cross-border terrorism” in Kashmir. It has spurned Islamabad’s overtures for reconciliation largely because it thinks it can exploit Washington’s concerns over Osama bin Laden and Pakistan’s Taliban links in order to build an exclusive relationship with the US.
This is part of India’s larger agenda to take the heat off itself for having crossed the nuclear threshold. India craves for recognition as a major Asian power and as (potentially) a world power that can be trusted by, above all, the United States, a country with which New Delhi seeks a junior ally’s status.
India was worried that Musharraf might use the Kathmandu venue to make a reasonable offer of reconciliation or a new detente, with negotiations on all disputed issues, including Kashmir. India first tried to rope in other states to scuttle the summit as news reports out of Delhi clearly indicated. Each of the seven SAARC members enjoys veto power, and even if one drops out, no meeting can take place. Sri Lanka was requested to ask for postponement on the ground that presidential elections are due in the country on 21 December. But Colombo refused to oblige. President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga did not wish to lower her extrovert profile, nor risk spoiling friendly relations with Pakistan. (Musharraf himself had been dismissed while returning from a visit to Sri Lanka.)
Sri Lanka opposed deferment stating that “Recent developments in Pakistan do not provide for SAARC to involve itself in the internal affairs of the member-state… A deviation for whatever reason from the path of collective endeavour” would “have serious and damaging consequences for the progress, prosperity, peace and security of South Asia”.
Sri Lanka is currently chair of SAARC. The other key state is Nepal, the designated summit host. It too was keen that the summit take place. Part of the reason was strictly domestic: the main ruling Congress party is faction-ridden and the government reckons that a high-profile regional event, with its pomp and glory, can contribute to its own stability. The rivals within Nepali Congress, as well as the opposition, would be reluctant to cause trouble just when the SAARC heads are scheduled to meet.
This is not the first time that New Delhi has manipulated SAARC for purely sectarian reasons. In 1991, it scuppered the Colombo summit. It did not wish to attend simply because that would have meant dealing with President Premadasa, who had strongly criticised India’s military intervention in that country and was seen in New Delhi as ‘hostile’.
The extensive preparations made in Colombo were suddenly rendered useless when the King of Bhutan declared his inability to attend. Bhutan, long a British Indian protectorate, has traditionally aligned its foreign policy to India’s. This time too, after finding Chairman Kumaratunga unwilling, New Delhi tried to enlist Bhutan and Bangladesh, but ultimately decided to come out in the open itself and demand postponement of the Kathmandu summit.
Already, India’s —and Pakistan’s —image within SAARC had taken a beating, especially after the nuclear tests of May last year. Their neighbours feel vulnerable to their rivalry: they would now be in the nuclear firing line for no fault of theirs. Now, India is bound to invite the charge that it sabotaged a worthy regional effort for petty and narrow considerations and sacrificed SAARC at the altar of tactical gamesmanship, which is incompatible with regional cooperation.
SAARC is an arrangement that is beneficial to all concerned, provided all promote it sincerely. Freer trade within the region alone would help member-states save upwards of USD 5 billion —which is more than the entire flow of foreign direct investment into South Asia. There are other, huge, so far-untapped opportunities for cooperation. India stands to gain perhaps the most. By sabotaging the SAARC Summit, India has only cut off its nose to spite its own face — all for the dubious ‘benefit’ of a junior partnership with the US.