By Dr Subhash Kapila
Contemporary politico-military developments in the Indian Subcontinent in the run-up to 2016 clearly posit that SAARC which was raised with great hopes in December 1985 to foster regional cooperation has not served its intended purpose. There is no point in perpetuating the charade of a failed organisation
In September 2016 the prospects of SAARC’s continuance looks bleaker with Pakistan having intensified its incitement of Kashmir Valley unrest on Muslim religious and communal grounds that Kashmir is the unfinished agenda of 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan’s pernicious ‘Two Nation Theory’ debunked by the 160 million Indian Muslims thriving on India’s economic prosperity. With the 19th SAARC Summit due in Islamabad in November 2016 and Indian public opinion heavily weighted against PM Modi’s participation there, the major fissure in SAARC will widen further. More so, when the Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh who had gone to Islamabad to attend the SAARC Home Ministers Conference was rudely rebuffed by Pakistan.
SAARC in the last three decades has not been able to forge a unified approach in regional terms to combat the scourge of terrorism that afflicts South Asia. This chiefly arises from opposition and obstruction by Pakistan as the fountainhead of terrorism in South Asia not only against secular India but also against Muslim countries like Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Both these nations have come out strongly against Pakistan on this score.
The single achievement of SAARC in the last three decades was the South Asia Free Trading Agreement which exists more in name than in practice. Pakistan has been obstructing and denying trade routes access to India and Afghanistan through Pakistani territory. This is highly condemnatory for a SAARC country professing regional cooperation. Trade and commerce, unhindered, would have been the stepping stones for political cooperation. But Pakistan’s propensity to inject geopolitical rivalries is a minus for SAARC.
SAARC would like to cite examples of achievements in the agricultural and cultural fields but these fields do not carry any political weight to endow SAARC with the halo of a substantial politically cohesive regional organisation. This lack of political punch degrades the very credibility of SAARC as the mouthpiece of regional aspirations.
Pakistan as the regional spoiler state solely reared by China all along to strategically discomfit India has proved that the Pakistani foreign policy blueprint in South Asia does not incorporate any political space for regional unity and cooperation. That applies more pointedly to the SAARC emerging as a powerful organisation.
Starry-eyed former diplomats and Indian academics vociferously advocated the inception of SAARC and even when it showed signs of failing fundamentally, these personalities invoked the example of the European Union and ASEAN to highlight the usefulness of regional cooperation organisations.
When in 2016 the European Union is unravelling and ASEAN unity is only a rhetorical façade with ASEAN in disunity succumbing to Chinese divisive pressures and muscle-twisting on the South China Sea issue, what optimism can be entertained on survival of SAARC with Pakistan playing China’s games in our region?
Pakistan’s problems with SAARC are two-fold. The first and more notable is that Pakistan with its obsessive complexes of India far outweighing Pakistan’s power potential in the Indian Subcontinent and accusing India of hegemonistic designs as China does views SAARC also as a mechanism for Indian hegemonism.
Secondly, Pakistan for many years vainly attempted to prevail over the other SAARC countries to line-up against India. In 2016 with India on an ascendant political and economic power trajectory these very SAARC countries see wisdom in plugging-in into India’s remarkable economic growth. In a way, Pakistan can be said to be now more isolated in SAARC. In remainder of SAARC countries Pakistan is perceived as only a mean alternative to India.
The above development raises serious implications for the longevity of SAARC as a frustrated Pakistan being egged on by China could eat into the remaining fabric of SAARC cooperation like termites.
Pakistan is highly unlikely to give up its pretensions of being considered and being respected as the strategic equivalent of India in the Indian Subcontinent and consequently in SAARC also. Contemporary geopolitical developments rule out the emergence of Pakistan as a strategic equivalent of India, and, therein exists the major rub for SAARC continuing as a sustainable regional cooperation organisation. In fact India on current trends is likely to emerge even more powerful and a strategic eyesore for Pakistan.
With this sort of contextual background, there are only two perspectives which have started playing out as far as future of SAARC is concerned. The first perspective is that despite SAARC failing as an effective organisation for regional cooperation SAARC continues in name only with token participation. The second perspective is that India fed up with Pakistan’s obstructive tactics in the smooth and effective functioning of SAARC explores other options.
India already seems to be engaged in the second option where a sub-regional cooperation organisation of SAARC minus Pakistan is taking shape. Scope exists for India to form a separate regional cooperation organisation comprising Afganistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka team up with India for a more integrated and unified in purpose regional cooperation organisation.
The next and most crucial question is whether Pakistan in the above eventuality has an option to form a rival regional cooperation organisation to the one that India is envisaging as outlined above. The straight and simple answer is that Pakistan has no such option open to it. Going by current trends none of the other SAARC member nations are likely to ally with Pakistan to form a rival organisation against India.
In conclusion, what emerges gloomily is that Pakistan can no longer be an effective and positive factor contributing to sustaining SAARC as the medium for regional cooperation. SAARC should therefore be disbanded forthwith and India promotes a new SAARC-minus Pakistan regional cooperation organisation. Such an envisaged organisation should not cater for any ‘observer status’ countries, and certainly not China, which has not proved itself as a force for good in South Asia.