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A new game begins, Saarc in sleep mode

| K.C. SINGH
Published : Sep 30, 2016, 12:23 am IST
Updated : Sep 30, 2016, 12:23 am IST

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision announced earlier this week to boycott the next Saarc summit, due to be held in Islamabad in November, was almost expected.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision announced earlier this week to boycott the next Saarc summit, due to be held in Islamabad in November, was almost expected. Television anchors hyperbolically asked if that spelt the death of the South Asian regional grouping. Then news came on Thursday morning that the Indian Army had carried out “surgical” strikes “along the Line of Control” against launch pads from where fresh militants were regrouping to infiltrate across the LoC. This is perhaps India’s first pre-emptive strike against Pakistani militants.

Diplomatically, there was merit in not responding to Uri, showing the world India was committed to strategic restraint and would resort to an armed response only as a last resort. Pakistan’s high commissioner Abdul Basit was summoned twice by foreign secretary S. Jaishankar, and shown specific proof of terrorists having crossed the LoC. An arrested guide even identified one such terrorist. But the Pakistani response was of utter denial. It became a dialogue with the deaf.

That’s when the political decision was taken that the cost to the deaf must be raised. Pakistan erred again, assuming India had backed off. Realising the Valley unrest was abating, it moved a fresh set of militants from the relative security of training camps, away from the LoC, to launch pads near it. India decided to swoop on the fresh jihadi cannon fodder to neutralise them. Spiking the Saarc summit was thus only to set the stage for a new game, which someone in South Block called changing the rules of Pakistan’s “low-cost low-risk” asymmetrical war. Pakistan may now be made to pay for any adventurism across the LoC or international border. Saarc, in its current form, appears set for a long slumber, or even untimely last rites.

It is undeniable that Saarc, founded in 1985 in Dhaka in line with the then global trend towards regional cooperation as a precursor to integration, is now in crisis. Asean, formed in 1967, was America’s bulwark against Communism in the context of the Vietnam War. The European Union, then still the European Economic Community, provided a Western balance to the then Warsaw Pact. Its real growth came only after the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union imploded, still five years away when Saarc was born.

As deputy secretary to then President Giani Zail Singh, whom Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi chose not to brief, I witnessed his summoning former foreign secretary Kewal Singh to learn about the implications of Saarc. Gianiji’s commonsense view was that as South Asia’s dominant power, why should India create a “panchayat” that may gang up on it Three decades later it is Pakistan against whom a majority of members are uniting. The reason cited by Afghanistan and Bangladesh, hinted at by Bhutan and implicit in Nepal’s whisperings, is that Pakistan is not curbing terror groups targeting fellow Saarc members and is in fact abetting them.

Today, in any case, the international mood has turned against globalisation and regional integration, with even the European Union left injured by Britain voting for Brexit. The Economist’s Charlemagne bemoaned last week that “national leaders stay mute about the bits of the European Union they like and rage against those they don’t”. The European Commission’s president, in his mid-September “state of the union” address, promised to protect against terrorism, globalisation, corporations and competition. It is notable that even the EU has terror and movement of refugees created by ISIS in Syria at the heart of its current self-doubt. Anti-trade hysteria is sweeping Germany, a key beneficiary of free trade. The demonstrators distrust markets, firms and globalisation. Donald Trump, US Republican presidential candidate, would heartily concur.

Similarly, even Asean, less integrated but a more harmonious union of 10 nations, is under strain over Chinese attempts to grab most of the South China Sea. The moral is that no union is immune to acts of outside actors, state or non-state. But in any case historical reconciliation in any region is an obvious precondition for its success. A dominant India assumed in 1985 that a Pakistan vanquished in 1971 and enfeebled by the ongoing fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan had reconciled to the past. That was obviously a huge misperception.

Post-Afghan war Pakistan inherited battle-hardened jihadi allies and a nuclear programme weaponised by 1987. Using the nuclear deterrence shield, it exploited Indian mishandling of Kashmir in 1986-87 to unleash terror on the Valley and then elsewhere in India. But ironically, its gameplan spun out of control when its protégés targeted its principal benefactor and occasional ally, the United States, in 2001. The Pakistani state’s depredations in Bangladesh in 1971 by sponsoring the Jamaat-i-Islami for genocide, in Afghanistan since 2001 by aiding and abetting the Taliban and the ruthless Haqqanis and against India since 1990s have built up a collective ire against it. This is also due to successful exploitation of the issue by Indian diplomacy.

Saarc made good progress on paper in climbing the ladder of regional cooperation and free trade and investment. A South Asian Free Trade Agreement (Safta) was signed in 2004, and was to see full implementation by 2015 end. Intra-Saarc trade is a mere one per cent of the GDP of eight members. Tariffs were to be reduced to below five per cent; but Pakistan will not normalise trade with India, or allow it overland access to Afghanistan, which joined Saarc in 2007. Connectivity and trade are the sine qua non of any regional grouping. Pakistan deliberately kept hobbling the association by its bilateral grouses with India.

Where does Saarc go from here India already has FTAs with Bhutan (1995), Nepal (1991) and Sri Lanka (1998). It has also ensured the participation of these three and Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic cooperation (Bimstec), which in addition to the above four plus India has Myanmar and Thailand from Asean. It is thus a bridge between South and Southeast Asia.

Saarc’s aim should thus not be to eject Pakistan (Paxit ), but to amend its rules and introduce Charles de Gaulle’s “empty chair” approach. Let those that don’t agree sit out. Saarc, however, operates by consensus and no summit can be held without all members agreeing. A postponement, like a few times in the past, and a change of venue may have overcome the present crisis had it not been for India’s armed retaliation over the Uri attack. Matters may now escalate or simmer. In any case, an immediate return to normality is ruled out.

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry. He tweets at @ambkcsingh