Arun Jaitley is reportedly not going to the Saarc finance ministers’ summit in Islamabad later this month, though a final decision has not been taken on this. If Jaitley ultimately does not go, it would be a mistake.
While the mood in India may be dark over Pakistan’s many perfidies in Jammu and Kashmir and support for murderous jihadis, India has a stake in three outcomes: One, showing the global community that India isn’t the war-monger; two, not giving Pakistan a free run to get its point of view across to six other Saarc members; and lastly, ensuring that Saarc does not become an India-bashing forum by default.
That Saarc is pointless without India is obvious; that Saarc will be unable to deliver as long as Pakistan is a member is also clear. What is not clear is our objective in staying in Saarc when it has only marginal utility for us.
Here's the point: India can neither abandon Saarc not back it fully because Pakistan remains a thorn in our side. We can’t abandon Saarc because nature abhors a vacuum; without us it will look towards China for ballast, and this is unacceptable to us. But we can’t get anything done in Saarc either, as Pakistan will play spoilsport.
Our strategy should be to focus on partnership with willing Saarc members on a bilateral or trilateral basis, and remaining in Saarc to block Pakistan’s machinations. Just as Pakistan plays spoiler to us, we must thwart them at every stage.
This hardly sounds like a great reason to stay in an organisation with limited utility, but sometimes it is necessary to stay in a place to prevent further damage.
This is what we need to do at Saarc:
1. Keep attending its talk-shops and participate in its limited cooperation agreements when they indeed happen. This will be rare, but marginally useful.
2. Do free trade deals with the remaining members in Saarc – which means Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and Maldives. We can also do deals with Afghanistan and Iran on the other side of our difficult neighbour. These deals must specifically exclude Pakistan, which has a congenital hatred towards us.
3. Create power grids and infrastructure to connect India eastwards, with Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan.
We have to ensure that Pakistan rots in Saarc. But we must not let Saarc rot in Islamabad. The ideal would be a Saarc minus Pakistan; since that is not possible, we must ensure that Saarc is not hijacked by Pakistan.
Just as Rajnath Singh went to Pakistan and still managed to state his strong views on terrorism, Jaitley needs to go there to make India’s presence felt in Islamabad.
Pakistan fears the idea of India, and that is precisely whe we must be there. Pakistan insulted Rajnath when he went there, and the reason it did so was to try and get us out of Saarc. We should not oblige.