The 32-year-old SAARC scarcely registers in our foreign policy debate, which is preoccupied with the exciting prospect of India’s role in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. The South Asian agenda has been reduced, at least in public perception, to countering Pakistan and its terror proxies. The Partition curtailed our territory and resources, severed trade and travel routes and was followed by horrendous violence. With the centuries-old tradition of rulers of India dominating the geo-strategic space in South Asia, independent India sought to exclude external powers from the region. There was also a nostalgic reaction from a section that raised the slogan of Akhand Bharat — a concept ranging from the undoing of Partition to a loosely-defined cultural unity covering South Asia and beyond. Both these ideals were belied in subsequent years.
Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee buried the idea of undoing Partition during his visit to Lahore in February 1999 by visiting Minar-e-Pakistan, which symbolises the creation of Pakistan. He also propounded the forward-looking approach of developing trust, confidence and creating “a solid structure of cooperation”. Manmohan Singh carried this thinking forward in presenting a vision of South Asia where, with the cooperation of all our neighbours, we move from poverty to prosperity, ignorance to knowledge and insecurity to lasting peace. Instead of pursuing the unrealistic goal of undoing Partition, this approach sought to leverage the large Indian economy in building mutually beneficial trade, economic and other linkages within South Asia.
Pakistan, though the largest obstacle to the emergence of a cohesive South Asia, is not the only one. An example is our inability so far to push through a sub-regional Motor Vehicle Agreement with Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh after Pakistan blocked a similar arrangement at the SAARC. Such hurdles are inherent in any process involving sovereign nations. A moribund SAARC is not in our interest. Sub-regional and other arrangements such as BIMSTEC, though valuable, are no substitute as these leave out our troublesome western periphery. If SAARC is a broken-down vehicle, we need another instrument, but cannot ignore or abandon the task of building a largely cohesive and stable periphery, which is essential to prevent meddling by external powers and realise our legitimate aspirations in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.
We cannot dictate the actions of our neighbours. But we do need to pay more attention to certain aspects within our control. First, our ability to manage our region and stature in the world depend to a considerable degree upon economic success. The continent-sized Indian economy, growing at around 6 per cent, holds a tremendous attraction for our neighbours. Imagine its lure, even for business and industry in an otherwise hostile Pakistan, when it was growing at 8 to 10 per cent, Second, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s assurance in an address in December 2014 that realising its special responsibility in driving the locomotive of South Asian growth, India would “continue to institutionalise positive asymmetry in favour of our neighbours and allow all to benefit from our economy and market”, should be the leitmotif of our South Asia policies.
Third, all our neighbours have certain vested interests opposed to India and it becomes necessary once in a while to send a coercive message to them. This should, however, not alienate the constituencies that are well-disposed towards us. A jingoistic response, as opposed to discreet punitive action, to the provocations of the Pakistan security establishment and its proxies ends up consolidating opinion there in favour of the provocateurs. The wisdom of restricting transit for Nepal to punish the short-sighted actions of its governments is also questionable. The resulting hardship can turn the entire population against us. Fourth, relations with our South Asian neighbours are intertwined with the interests of our states and certain political constituencies. For example, the politics in Tamil Nadu over the Sri Lankan Tamils issue and our relationship with Pakistan has become a subject of electoral politics in recent years. In a democracy, such politics is unavoidable to an extent but carried out cynically, it could have unintended consequences.
Fifth, the cost and time overruns that mar most of our projects at home due to cumbersome administrative and financial procedures also afflicts our projects in neighbouring countries. Instead of complaining against interlopers from outside the region, we need to focus on improving our project delivery. Lastly, the pull of our soft power is the strongest in South Asia because India remains the repository of nearly all linguistic, religious and cultural traditions of this region. India is the epitome of the South Asian diversity, which we have managed well in our vibrant democracy. Any faltering on this count would impair not only our South Asia project, but also our global ambitions.