Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to skip the South Asian summit in Islamabad next month is, in essence, about the deteriorating relationship with Pakistan. It also underlines the growing irrelevance of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation for India’s regionalism. Irrespective of India’s future relations with Pakistan, the Modi government’s search for alternatives to SAARC will now acquire a new momentum.
For too long, India had conflated its regionalism with SAARC that was established three decades ago at the initiative of Bangladesh. While Delhi and Islamabad were both wary of the move in the mid-1980s, it was the inward economic orientation of the Subcontinent that limited possibilities for regional cooperation. As the Subcontinent launched economic reforms in the 1990s, regional integration appeared a natural consequence waiting to happen. As the South Asian states opened up to the world, it seemed sensible to connect with each other. But that was not how it turned out.
India, on its part, inched towards accepting regionalism as an economic and political necessity. The SAARC, in turn, began to emphasise trade liberalisation, regional connectivity and trans-border economic projects. South Asia sought to evolve, much in the manner that the Association of South East Asian Nations had stitched itself together two decades earlier.
As SAARC developed new proposals and agreements in favour of preferential trade, free trade, road and rail connectivity and cross-border energy projects, it became clear that Pakistan was the camel that slowed down the pace of the South Asian caravan. More accurately, it was the Pakistan Army headquartered in Rawalpindi that exercised the veto. It was not that the Pakistan army was against the idea of regional cooperation. At a moment when SAARC was being formed in the mid-1980s, Pakistan set up the Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO) with Iran and Turkey. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Central Asian states joined the ECO. More recently, Rawalpindi has become the champion and guardian of the trans-border China-Pakistan economic corridor.
Rawalpindi’s problem was with the idea of economic integration with India. Neither the initiatives of SAARC, nor the Indian appeals, were capable of changing this. China and the United States, two of Pakistan’s best friends, often tried nudging Rawalpindi to take a more positive view of economic cooperation with India. Civilian leaders at the national as well as the provincial level in Pakistan have long sought greater cooperation across the borders. But resistance of Pakistan’s ‘deep state’ was insurmountable.
Two most recent examples have been the talks on trade liberalisation and cross-border trade in energy during the last years of the UPA government. Islamabad pulled back just when the agreements were ready for signature. Pakistan also walked away from agreements on road connectivity after they were presented to the heads of government at the last SAARC summit in Kathmandu in November 2014.
In the past, Delhi simply shrugged its shoulders. Although it was clear that the SAARC caravan was going nowhere with Pakistan, it seemed there was little that India could do. PM Modi, however, took a different track. At the Kathmandu summit, he called for a two-speed SAARC. Rather than let one country take the entire region hostage, Modi suggested, those who are ready for integration should move ahead. As a result, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal got together soon after the Kathmandu summit to implement the motor vehicle agreement.
The BBIN framework was seen by many as heralding the era of ‘SAARC Minus One’ and hostile to Pakistan. The BBIN, however, was very much part of the SAARC framework. The SAARC charter allows two or more countries of the forum to embark on what is called ‘sub-regional cooperation’. It was a policy instrument that was long available to policymakers in Delhi but remained unutilised. Delhi could also complement its sub-regional initiative with trans-regional outreach. If the Look East Policy aimed to integrate India with Asia, Delhi also helped create a regional forum called the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation). Although it dates back to 1997, the forum that brings five South Asian countries (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka) together with two south east Asian countries (Burma and Thailand) has remained dormant.
The Modi government is now eager to re-energise the BIMSTEC forum. As part of that commitment, it has invited the BIMSTEC leaders to join the BRICS leaders at the Goa summit next week. Modi’s meetings with the BIMSTEC leaders present a major opportunity to demonstrate that the meltdown of SAARC does not mean India is giving up the ambitions of its neighbourhood first strategy. One thing that the PM, who never misses an opportunity to coin a new acronym, might want to do is to give the BIMSTEC a more attractive name. The Bay of Bengal Community? BOBCOM, anyone?
The turn to the east, however, does not resolve India’s Pakistan problem in promoting economic cooperation with Afghanistan. Rawalpindi is dead set against letting Indian goods move overland to Afghanistan, despite fervent appeals from Kabul and an occasional entreaty from Washington. With no physical access to Afghanistan, Delhi needs to find creative ways to deepen bilateral economic engagement with Kabul bilaterally and through trilateral cooperation with other partners like Tehran.
Pakistan is free to choose its partners. It has consciously embraced China as the strategic economic partner; Rawalpindi believes that restoring historic economic connectivity with India is a threat to Pakistan. India can’t compel Pakistan to join the project of South Asian integration. Instead of bemoaning that fact, Delhi must devote itself to bilateral, sub-regional and trans-regional cooperation with our neighbours, all of whom except Pakistan want India to do more. SAARC may be headed to the mortuary. But India can easily catch a new wind in its regional sails.