Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh was absolutely right in berating Pakistan at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) home ministers' meeting in Islamabad and staging some drama because that’s the only utility of this regional body. With India accounting for 70 percent of South Asia and the India-Pakistan rivalry dominating South Asian geopolitics, Saarc has proved to be of absolutely no value except for conferences and symbolism.
In fact, for its economic and geopolitical gains, India doesn’t even need Saarc. It has its bilateral treaties and Free Trade Agreements (FTA). If not to flex muscles with an unruly Pakistan, why should it spend any time or resources on Saarc?
With Pakistan actively pursuing terror against India, both within its borders and outside, India is well justified in using any multilateral forum to expose its darker side. The UN doesn’t open its doors very often for geo-political statements and its agencies are engaged only in development work; so what’s SAARC’s best utility for India? Grab headlines and annoy Pakistan.
And Rajnath did it very well.
South Asia is not East Asia and Saarc is not the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). Saarc meetings are routine, sleepy (sometimes culturally extravagant) affairs, while every single Asean conclave is robust and purposeful. Saarc, as a block dealing with the international community, is a dud (except in the UN and donor documents that need a grouping for convenience), while
Asean is the third biggest trade block after the European Union and the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta). It commands respect even from countries outside its region as the FTAs with countries such as China, Australia, New Zealand and India demonstrate. Moreover, South Asia is an artificial geopolitical classification where other than the colonial, socio-cultural past, common levels poverty (except in Sri Lanka) and the desperation of its people, there is nothing contemporarily common that binds them together — not even the idea and practice of democracy.
Then, why on earth is there a region called South Asia and a body called Saarc?
It's obviously so that India and Pakistan can fight or throw tantrums, for people to attend farcical conferences, and some civil servants and political appointees to garner “diplomatic” postings. The Saarc secretariat in Kathmandu is a favourite destination for officers (mostly from the Ministry of External Affairs) with the more connected ones landing the Saarc positions at the UN and the EU. There are also a few Saarc institutions including the university in Delhi, where the nominees from the member countries get fancy salaries.
And what of regional cooperation?
What one saw in Islamabad on Thursday was a good example. Whether it’s the grand summits, that countries such as Sri Lanka and Maldives get excited about, or ministerial meetings, the oft-repeated spectacle is India showing its muscle and Pakistan trying to match. Or Pakistan trying to throw barbs at India, and the latter shooing them away.
The funniest aspect of the Saarc farce is Sapta (the Saarc Preferential Trading Arrangement) or Safta (South Asian Free Trade Area). India’s exports to the countries of the region were less than seven percent of its total exports in 2014-15 and Sapta/Safta played no role.
In comparison, India is better off doing bilateral business. It has a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Sri Lanka and the trade between the two has been rising forever. Indian goods account for around 14 percent of Sri Lanka’s imports, which is around 3.6 per cent of India’s exports. India also has FTAs with the Maldives and Nepal. With the Maldives, its exports have been growing steadily and there have been additional ties such as scholarships, development and technical assistance, and investments. In the case of Nepal, India is its major trading partner that accounts for around 66.4 percent (2011 figures) of its bilateral trade. India is also Nepal’s biggest foreign investor. For Bhutan, India accounts for 91 percent of its exports and 82 percent of its imports. India has also been the major financier of Bhutan’s Five Year Plans.
If Saarc’s multilateralism was strategic to India, there was no need for these FTAs. It knows that as long Pakistan continues to be an envious, inimical neighbour, a regional body is only a symbol. Depute some officers, give some scholarships, host and participate in meetings and sign treaties that will just remain on paper. And if India is indeed spending some time on Saarc, it should make the best use of it: Bash Pakistan. And that is exactly what Rajnath did. As a supposedly convening body, it has no other utility.
Pakistan, in its counter-attack in Islamabad on Friday may have scored some points on the alleged human rights excesses by the Indian army in Kashmir. And there may be reverberations in India as well. But, unfortunately what’s often masked by India’s military might or pellet strikes in Kashmir is its helplessness.
India’s political position that Kashmir is its integral part is strategically indispensable.
Had Saarc been of any relevance, Pakistan wouldn’t be doing what it’s doing to destabilise India
Once it has taken such a stand, there is no other choice, but to defend it. If Pakistan is fostering terror and hiding behind the militants and unruly mobs, India doesn’t have an option at all. Even if the majority of Kashmiris want to secede from India, it cannot accede because every single political party in the country subscribes to the position that Kashmir is part of India and will remain so. The only chance of peace is when the people of Kashmir accept it and reject Pakistan’s proxy war.
Unfortunately, Kashmiris have no other option either. It’s unavoidable geopolitics. Non-stakeholders have the freedom to criticise because they are not governing a country and the affairs of its people and guarding its borders. The withering of the nation-state is an idea only non-stakeholders hallucinate about.
Coming back to the futility of Saarc, there are also a number of conventions that the countries in the region, including Pakistan, have signed. One of them is on terrorism. Had Saarc been of any relevance, Pakistan wouldn’t be doing what it’s doing to destabilise India. So, India, if ever you go to Saarc again, do what Rajnath has done. It’s perfectly justified.