They had gathered on 2 April to announce to the press the formation of a new grouping for regional cooperation. But their dilemma was that they did not want to appear to be undermining SAARC. It was a difficult tightrope to walk.
The opening remarks of the chairman, the Nepali Foreign Secretary, Kumar Gyawali, did not even mention that a new grouping had been formed. Sheepishly, he skirted the issue by saying they had been “talking about a growth quadrangle”. There was more than a hint of contrition when he said that they had decided to adopt the principle of transparency and tell their fellow SAARC members what they were doing.
The first question confirmed the panel´s fears. The Bangladeshi Foreign Secretary, Farouq Sobhan, had to give a long rationalisation of how Article Seven of SAARC Charter allowed cooperation among two or more of members on specific projects—he said the cooperation in the new grouping would also be “project specific”. This raised the question of how one could have unspecific cooperation. He said that in deference to the objection from Pakistan, they had decided to pursue their plans outside of SAARC. The Indian Foreign Secretary, Salman Haider, paid a glowing tribute to SAARC and its achievements—just in case anyone had any doubts.
But that was. not enough to convince sceptical journalists. “I would really request that we don´t return to the same question again and again,” said Mr Haider, by then quite naturally assuming the role of the chairman. When questions on the issue were raised to others, Mr Haider took it upon himself to suggests to others on the panel not to answer them. Journalists had to remind him that it was legitimate to ask question from others even if he was not prepared to discuss them himself.
Later, Mr Haider went further when, to general disbelief, he said that SAARC response to the new initiative of India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan had been “in one word, supportive.” When journalists asked the Bhutanese foreign secretary, Lhatu Wangchuk, to comment, he said he had nothing else to add to what had already been said.
Watching the foreign secretaries handling the news conference, it was easy to imagine how the new regional grouping would work in practice.