Written by Vinitha Revi.
The South Asia Satellite, GSAT-9, was successfully launched into space on May 5th by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi called this “a gift” to its South Asian neighbours to enable better coordination in a range of areas including banking, broadcasting, tele-medicine, weather forecasting and disaster relief. Bhutan’s Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay dubbed the move “historic,” pointing out “this is the first time a country has launched a satellite for the free use of its neighbours.”
Its critics refer to SAARC as being merely a talking shop. Nevertheless, regular talk should not be dismissed as inconsequential.
The South Asia Satellite was initially meant to be a SAARC satellite. The programme was offered by India in 2014 to all SAARC members including Pakistan. When Pakistan dropped out, it had to be renamed the South Asia Satellite. Although a milestone for regional integration, many saw this as yet another totem for the failure of SAARC. So, will South Asian integration have to take place outside SAARC? Is SAARC no longer relevant?
The South Asian Association for Regional Corporation, which came into existence in 1985, has achieved limited success. Despite its huge growth potential, South Asia remains the least integrated region. Most agree that at the heart of the failure of SAARC is the India-Pakistan hostility; their inability to put aside political differences and co-operate for the sake of the region.
India, wanting to change this rhetoric, particularly to demonstrate its willingness to set aside bilateral issues with Pakistan and engage its neighbourhood, embraced a policy of ‘Neighbourhood First.’ When the new government came into power in 2014, they pursued this goal with high energy and dramatic gestures. In a move, totally unprecedented and high on optics, Modi invited all seven heads of the SAARC countries to his swearing-in ceremony. This was followed by several high-level visits to these countries, including Indian Foreign Secretary’s ‘SAARC Yatra’ to discuss both the prospects for SAARC and bilateral issues.
For all that, when at the SAARC Summit in Kathmandu, only 1 out of the proposed 3 agreements were signed, skepticism and cynicism returned to most analyses on regional cooperation through SAARC. It was further made explicit that even Modi’s enthusiasm was much less about SAARC and more about greater connectivity with its neighbours, when he said, “The bonds will grow. Through SAARC or outside it. Among us all or some of us.”
When the SAARC Motor Vehicle Agreement fell through, India decided it would pursue sub-regionalism; i.e. a similar agreement with Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal (BBIN MVA); and the phrase ‘SAARC minus one’ started to gain popularity among analysts. When India pulled out of the summit scheduled to take place in Islamabad (following the Uri terror attacks) Bhutan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and then finally the Maldives followed suit. The summit has been postponed indefinitely, leaving behind the feeling that SAARC has once again failed. When it comes to the prospects for SAARC, there is a sense of dejavu.
The recent launching of the satellite seems to reiterate this sentiment of SAARC minus one. For India, its focus is on pursuing its neighbourhood policy; whether through SAARC or outside. The question that remains is this: If South Asian regionalism is going ahead outside of SAARC, does this imply the death of an organisation that has long been considered moribund?
Several obituaries have been written for SAARC. While in the present climate, any sort of co-operation between India and Pakistan seems unrealistic, these two neighbours have experienced similar periods of acrimonious relations. Postponement of SAARC summits is not a new occurrence, having happened several times in the past. As dysfunctional as it appears, SAARC has survived, albeit sometimes as a farce. Trying to answer the question ‘Will SAARC survive,’ seems to slightly miss the point. On the other hand, there is good reason to focus, the region does need an institution of South Asian powers, on the challenges and opportunities provided by SAARC.
Its critics refer to SAARC as being merely a talking shop. Nevertheless, regular talk should not be dismissed as inconsequential. SAARC offers, in principle, frequent opportuinities for the leaders to meet. Tobgay argued that “at the minimum it is a safe political stage for them to meet.” When the Indian Foreign Secretary embarked on his SAARC Yatra, there was talk of it being a disguised ‘Pak Yatra’. Is the Prime Minister, “trying to anchor his Pakistan policy within that of the outreach to all SAARC countries?” SAARC affords India and Pakistan the opportunity to discuss their bilateral issues in an incremental way, without it being the focus.
Many have argued that informal SAARC has been more significant and successful than formal SAARC, alluding to discussions that take place on the sidelines of its summits. While SAARC has been used by India and Pakistan as a stage for publicly assigning blame, criticising each other and sending out political messages by stalling agreements, postponing summits and opting out of projects; the sidelines of SAARC have served the opposite objective of privately attempting to resolve differences and thawing hostility.
Owing to India’s problems with Pakistan, the seven-country grouping BIMSTEC, is being considered as an alternative to SAARC. However, it faces several of the same obstacles as SAARC. At a recent conference in Dhaka, Syed Monowar Hussain (former Director of the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority) said, “When you talk about connectivity with India, the perception is that it is only for the benefit of India.” The big struggle of this neighbourhood has been one of perception. There is a legacy of distrust amongst these neighbours, and predominantly against India. They see India as a domineering big brother and not as a developmental partner. India must address this “perception that it meddles and bullies.”
South Asian instability goes beyond the India-Pakistan rivalry. Each SAARC country has its set of issues – with its identity, domestic politics, immediate neighbours and extra-regional players; these are profoundly embedded in history and further complicated by geographical contiguity. If efforts at regional integration and cooperation are to struggle anywhere, it is definitely here in the South Asian neighbourhood. Engaging its neighbourhood is the key, through both regionalism and sub-regionalism. It must be pointed out that sub-regionalism is allowed under the SAARC Charter. Therefore, initiatives such as the South Asia Satellite and BBIN MVA, rather than undermining the organisation, work well within the framework of SAARC. Sub-regionalism must be seen as a step towards regionalism, while staying away from isolationist phraseology such as SAARC minus one.
Dr. Vinitha Revi is an independent researcher and guest lecturer. Photo Credit: CC by SAARC.