Look Around policy key to SAARC's future

Written by: Shubham Ghosh
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The world has shrunk ever since globalisation had set in. But the region called south Asia has not. It is an irony that despite being called a sub-continent, various nations of south Asia are yet to find a commonality based on which they can proceed towards growth and prosperity.

It is unfortunate that failure to develop an inclusiveness has barred millions of inhabitants of the region from realising a huge potential. The story of SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) is an example of that. The organisation had just 17 annual summits since 1985, the year when it was set up.

One of the prime reason for SAARC's sad story is that south Asia is too heterogeneous a region to be bonded together with a magic wand. Never in history has this region been a united one.

SAARC

The British had kept the sub-continent together, thanks to their iron-steel bureaucracy and strong leadership, but ever since their departure from these parts in the mid-twentieth century, it was back to the old practice of mutual animosity and hatred. South Asia is a region which has witnessed two major partitions within a span of 24 years and the biggest migration in the history of the world accompanied by pathetic losses of life and property. No wonder, such a region would see little success in joining hands.

Post 1947, the year when India, the largest country in the region, became independent, a problem of disbalance evolved. South Asians, who had already inherited a colonial legacy of mutual suspicion, now found a sense of complex growing in them — both superior and inferior.

The Indian state began to feel that south Asia is a place where it wields big influence, even if in an implicit way. It is physically bigger than all other countries added and it is the only country which has common borders with all its south Asian neighbours (even it has an overwhelming presence for littoral countries like Sri Lanka and Maldives).

Even India in the past scoffed at an idea of regionalism in south Asia once, suspecting it to be a ploy of the smaller neighbours to 'gang up' against her. This made the other nations feel insecure and intimidated. India's interference in some of its neighbours, directly or indirectly, has not helped things either. Hence, the ambience was never conducive for a regional integration plan to prosper, like for instance, the ASEAN or EU. South Asia was too divided to thrive for that.

The biggest constraint has been the India-Pakistan enmity. The two countries have been involved in a number of wars and conflicts between 1947 and 1999. Low-intensity border skirmishes are a routine affair and today in 2012, although things have not remained where they were 65 years ago, New Delhi and Islamabad are yet to cover a long distance for a sustained camaraderie.

Two other important factors have badly crippled the SAARC.

First, the political culture prevalent in south Asia. Barring India, it is a region which has not seen much of a democracy. Many of them have had their shares of problems with military coups, despotic monarchies and other non-democratic features. And often, India had to bear the brunt of undemocratic policies executed by some of its neighbours. This has affected bilateral relations in some form and SAARC has been the loser in the final count. A form of 'democratic and other socio-economic culture exchange' is always welcome among the SAARC nations.

The second factor has been regional trade. Like politics, economic can be another handy medium for peace and prosperity but again, south Asia failed to capitalise on that.

The agreement on SAFTA (South Asia Free Trade Area), considered to be the most important achievement of the SAARC so far, has also not succeeded in promoting intra-regional trade to satisfactory levels. We don't see much of say, a Pakistani, Sri Lankan or Maldivian brand in our market, do we? Besides the constant factor called 'suspicion', lack of brand-building, poor infrastructure, connectivity, tariff and non-tariff barriers of trade are some other factors which have really pulled back the organisation's prospects.

It is time that the south Asian countries take an initiative for a truly free trade regime for mutual benefit. There are abundant resources and skilled production and services available in south Asia to promote a viable free trade.

Inclusion of Afghanistan in the SAARC in 2005 as its eighth member has undoubtedly complicated the equation for SAARC. With the entry of Afghanistan, terrorism and politics related to it won't be far away from the SAARC and there will be necessary a consensus among all other members to ensure that they deal with any outside influence sternly.

This is easier said than done for taking a common stance on terrorism by India and Pakistan is yet to be made possible. The only hope is that the deteriorating US-Pakistan relations over a range of issues could see the latter forging a strategic alliance with India, hence benefiting the cause of south Asia. Pakistan, after all, has been badly boomeranged by terrorism.

Having said this, it is not that the outer world has discarded SAARC. Countries like the USA, Germany, China, Japan, South Korea and blocks like the EU have shown interest in forging relation with the SAARC, assuming the vast financial scope the region offers.

Realities in south Asia have changed. There is no point in maintaining the SAARC as a rigid but divided eight-member family. Loosening of frontiers to encourage more people-to-people contacts and increasing trade are key necessities of the day.

India, particularly, has to take a proactive step or if it continues to ignore its neighbourhood, its strong competitors who would take into confidence the neighbours and give headaches to India. Former Indian Prime Minister I K Gujral had once thought of a viable doctrine to help south Asia overcome its obstacles, we can always build on that.

We can also take a leaf from new forums like BRICS and others on how they are going about to thrive financially. Nation-building activities should be strengthened to overcome the colonial hangover and above all, the two biggest members must dutifully join hands for the betterment of the region. We all must look around for a way for we have too much potential to waste woefully.

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