For many countries in the region now, India has lost the heft it used to have in the last century.
Since 2014, when the last SAARC summit was held in Kathmandu, India had made it more than clear that it no longer considers the South Asia grouping viable. It was Islamabad’s turn to host the next summit in 2016, but the Uri attack intervened, and India refused to attend. Under the SAARC charter, the summit cannot be held even if a single nation stays away, and the grouping has remained in limbo since.
In the last five years, India has actively sought to isolate Pakistan in the region, and hyped up its engagement with other regional groupings such as BBIN (Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal), and BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), which includes Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan.
“SAARC has certain problems and I think we all know what it is, even if you were to put the terrorism issue aside, there are connectivity and trade issues. If you look at why BIMSTEC leaders were invited for PM’s swearing-in, because we see energy, mindset and possibility in BIMSTEC,” S Jaishankar said, immediately after taking charge as External Affairs Minister.
At a meeting of SAARC foreign ministers in New York, seven weeks after India had stripped Jammu & Kashmir of its special status and statehood, Jaishankar said: “In our view, elimination of terrorism in all its forms is a pre-condition not only for fruitful cooperation but also for the very survival of the region itself.” The Pakistan Foreign Minister had declared he would not attend the lunch meeting as he could not sit with the “killers of Kashmiris”.
So, how should we read the sudden resurrection of SAARC by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with the stated aim of working out a regional approach to the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping through all the countries of the region? Does it mean anything for the future of the regional grouping?
Despite hopes that this might be a SAARC revival, officials have discounted such speculation. That would require India to climb down from its position that Pakistan has taken verifiable steps to address India’s concerns on terrorism. There is no evidence at all that Delhi is about to do that. Or, it would need Pakistan to turn over a new leaf, stop playing with free radicals to use against India, in Kashmir or elsewhere, when the time is ripe. Neither is about to happen.
Still, at a time when leaders across the globe appeared to be engrossed in the COVID-19 calamity of their own nations, Modi was the first to think of calling the neighbours. Full marks. Almost all South Asian countries are bound to each other by land borders and frequent inter-travel, and it is important that the region liaises to stop the disease from spreading across the Subcontinent.
It was a trifle disappointing, therefore, that beyond the experience of witnessing a unique video summit, that was beamed live into homes in every country in the region, since the meeting, there is not much to suggest that a cooperative response is in the works, with the urgency that is required for the swiftness with which the disease is spreading. There is no evidence that each country is willing to learn from the other’s experiences, or public health systems, or that we are tracking each other’s data and responses.
Two proposals were made: One by India for a regional fund that Modi has generously offered to put aside $10 million for. Pakistan proposed the setting up of a diseases surveillance centre for sharing real time data. India has said it would prepare emergency response task forces to help out the member countries in need. Delhi is said to be in the process of sending medical supplies worth $1 million to Nepal, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Maldives, which sounds like a fraction of what they may eventually require. Pakistan has said China will give it testing kits, protective gear and portable ventilators, as well as a cash grant for a state-of-the-art isolation centre. Beijing, eager to live down its image as the point of origin for this global mayhem, will make the same offer to other South Asian countries soon.
If the intention was to try and restore the aura Prime Minister Modi enjoyed in the region at the beginning of NDA-1, as some have not improbably suggested, it has to go beyond this Big Boss event. SAARC leaders have been used to Modi’s out-of-the-box ideas from the time they were all invited to his 2014 swearing-in ceremony, and also to these not leading anywhere in particular. The video summit saw polite attendance by all SAARC leaders, with the exception of Pakistan which sent its health minister, who predictably raised the issue of Kashmir. But going by the scant media coverage that the summit, the first after six years, received in the neighbourhood, no one is holding their breath.
For many countries in the region now, India has lost the heft it used to have in the last century. A proximate reason is because it is no longer an economic powerhouse nor holds the promise of being one in the near future. The other reason is that it no longer offers itself as a model nation, pulling together its complex diversities, pluralism and political ideologies in a broad-minded vision. The real damage to India’s standing was, of course, done by the badmouthing of the Muslim countries in the neighbourhood to justify the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019. Seen from the eyes of other countries in South Asia today, India is now just a larger version of themselves and their political and economic dysfunctions, while additionally possessing and wielding the instruments to be vengeful and punitive in its foreign policy — including arm-twisting them now and then in its constant quest to isolate Pakistan.
The real test of Modi’s leadership of South Asia, and by extension of India’s, will come after the pandemic subsides, when each country has to deal with what remains of its economy. The tourism economy of Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka would have been crushed by then. Pakistan will be worse off than it is now. There will be more unemployment and hardship everywhere in the region.
Some of these countries will inevitably turn to China. If Modi’s gesture is to go some way as part of the solution for the region, India, which will be picking up the pieces itself, must have something to offer to its South Asian neighbours six months to a year down the line. Is there such a plan? Can India put aside the prejudices of its domestic communalism, and its own economic woes, demonstrate large-heartedness to all the countries of the region, irrespective of what religion its people follow, irrespective of its historical hostilities with at least one? There may be more economic refugees knocking on India’s doors, apart from a host of other inter-regional problems.
Can India be the generous big-hearted leader that SAARC may need in the post-COVID-19 world, or will the hunt for “termites” keep the vision narrow, the party line strong, and the leadership unfulfilled?