Saarc often grabs headlines, always of the wrong kind. But Sasec is rarely in news. That’s a pity.
Saarc (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), comprising India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Maldives, has only largely helped Pakistan to abuse or undermine India.
But Sasec (South Asian Sub-regional Economic Cooperation), which consists of all the Saarc countries except Pakistan and Afghanistan, has emerged as a more successful sub-grouping. In the past 15 years, it has implemented 33 projects worth more than US $6 billion.
I can never forget the hype and hoopla I witnessed at the second summit of Saarc in Bangalore in 1986. Considering that the inaugural summit in Dhaka the previous year had only been an introductory exercise, the Bangalore summit was practically the first one with a “serious” agenda.
But nothing really was serious. Among the officials, there was more discussion on security for the heads of the seven nations (Afghanistan joined the group later). And western correspondents, present in big number, spent more time at the bar of the five-star hotel where the delegations stayed, discussing the politics of the US and Middle East.
Even at that initial stage of Saarc, the bonhomie was as false as the speeches of the leaders were hollow. Two dictatorships, two monarchies and three democracies under one umbrella seemed like an unwieldy gathering, as I reported at that time.
Floating Saarc seemed to me like putting out fire with kerosene. If the Pakistani delegates appeared friendly, it was a charade that fooled nobody. At the end of it, Abdus Sattar, then Pakistan’s foreign secretary, said: “Within the short time since its inception, Saarc has made impressive progress.” His words conveyed a conviction that his face didn’t.
The biggest achievement, if any, of this summit was that Rajiv Gandhi and Muhammad Khan Junejo, the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan, sat down together separately. And what did they supposedly agree? Resumption of talks between the two countries on the normalisation of relations in general and terrorism in particular.
That was 30 years ago.
And now, it’s an act of terrorism from across the Pakistan border, worse than any in recent years, with active collusion of its government with the sole aim to provoke its neighbour, which is again prompting the question of whether India should continue to be part of the joke called Saarc.
Saarc is the tragic travesty of a concept that had its roots in Jawaharlal Nehru’s idea of how a post-colonial India would show Europe its place. After Bangladesh’s Ziaur Rahman and Morarji Desai made some progress in 1977, Saarc became a reality in 1983, when PV Narasimha Rao was the External Affairs Minister, though Pakistan seemed wary of India’s motives even at that time.
For some time after the first summit in 1985, Saarc blundered on with the false pretence of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) or even an European Union (EU) in the making. But later it even gave up that pretence. As G Pramod Kumar points out here, it has little to its credit.
None of the member-countries are even sure why this body exists with a secretariat in Dhaka. None, except Pakistan.
All along, Pakistan knew what it wanted. One of Pakistan’s worst-kept secrets was its single-point Saarc agenda. It was to use the forum to ensure that India didn’t turn into a political or economic power centre in the region. It used Saarc to spread mistrust in India and bad blood blood in the vicinity, and it was no surprise that it sabotaged idea after idea that India proposed for regional cooperation.
This became part of Pakistan’s effort to equate itself with India, an exercise that only makes that country look like a mouse that bites the ears of an elephant, something that India’s inept foreign policy managers have done precious little about.
The Saarc satellite is only the latest example. Soon after he took over, Prime Minister Narendra Modi came up with the idea to “gift” a Rs 235-crore satellite to member countries for cooperation in telecommunications, broadcasting and disaster management. After seemingly warming up to the project, Pakistan sabotaged it, even questioning India’s motives behind offering the satellite.
But India is going ahead with the project along with Saarc countries other than Pakistan, calling it either a South Asian Satellite or a South-East Asian Satellite.
Pakistan also played spoilsport in the signing of two important agreements at the last minute at the eighteenth Saarc summit in Kathmandu in 2014. One was on motor vehicles and the other was on railways. But in 2015, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal separately signed up the transport agreement which allows vehicles to enter each other’s territory, doing away with trans-shipment of goods from one country’s truck to another at the border. This saves time and costs.
It’s this new grouping of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal — which came together in 1996 and which is known as BBIN in official parlance — that has been showing a lot of promise. This led to another forum by the four countries: Sasec in 2001 with funding from Asian Development Bank. Maldives and Sri Lanka joined Sasec in 2014.
As Isher Judge Ahluwalia, the director of Delhi’s Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, notes here: “The relative slowness in the promotion and implementation of regional investment projects within the framework of Saarc... prompted some of the South Asian countries to think in terms of an alternative regional hub.”
Sasec’s projects encompass transport, communication, energy, trade, investment facilitation and tourism.
In the absence of India, Pakistan might hijack Saarc and use it even more for India-bashing. Let India stay on there.
But the lesson to learn is this: Without Pakistan, plenty of regional cooperation has been going on and will go on.
Let Saarc die a slow death. Long live Sasec.
Author tweets @sprasadindia