On 14 March, typical to his style of indulging in personal diplomacy by springing surprises, Prime Minister Narendra Modi summoned a video conference. It was meant to look like a “virtual” web-based SAARC “Summit”. In no time his diplomatic blitzkrieg enthused a set of cheerleaders in India and other places in the region to organise a few webinars to promote the idea as if the stalled SAARC process had been resumed. They may have added some variety to their lockout-induced boredom, but the actual game remained where it was. To my understanding the exercise was nothing but that of one-upmanship between India and Pakistan in which the participation of other member-countries was just a legitimizing formality.
Everything has multiple uses. Even a pandemic like Covid-19 is no exception. United States President Donald Trump has been proving that every day through his diplomatic offensive against China. By naming it as the original sinner in spreading the Coronavirus, he has accused the Chinese of using the disease to win their war of supremacy against the Americans. Within our region, India was trying to resuscitate a dying SAARC through the expedience of Covid-19 diplomacy. Pakistan was the target, and it retaliated in kind. Who cares whether SAARC as a vehicle of peace and progress works or not?
Even at its healthiest, SAARC was a lame horse. That horse is now further debilitated by this pandemic. Under the circumstances, if some South Asian cooperation, however cosmetic, can make the horse trot again, surely that is not a bad thing. But to expect it to gallop will be asking for the moon. Some commentators tend to term this effort as the beginning of a SAARC 2.0, as if SAARC 1.0 was a success. Let us take stock of what exactly happened at the SAARC video meet. But before that some background may be helpful.
In my reckoning, SAARC is a failed project. An alternative view is possible provided one reconciles oneself to a change in the very definition of SAARC; that is, SAARC minus Pakistan. In so far as India is concerned, it would have loved a truncated SAARC sans Pakistan. But the problem is that it is not sure how the other members would react to such a reconfiguration, barring probably Bhutan whose foreign policy is, for all practical purposes, dictated by India. The alternate view must also have a high tolerance for the theatrics that SAARC routinely indulges in. This is something that every member state seems quite happy about. Theatricality, after all, is in South Asia’s DNA.
For the purposes of diplomacy, other SAARC members would prefer to walk a tight rope rather than simply agree with what India wants. They were willing, for instance, to boycott the Pakistan-chaired 19th SAARC Summit in November 2016 to mollify India’s anger after the Pakistani terror attack in Uri, but not much else beyond that. They certainly do not endorse Pakistan’s actions, but they are also mindful that Pakistan is also their only leverage against Indian hegemony in the region.
Nepal has an additional technical reason too, particularly in the current context. After having chaired the 18th SAARC Summit in Kathmandu in November 2014, it has effectively become a chair-in-perpetuity unless a 19th summit is indeed held. That number itself is telling of SAARC’s failure. Remember that SAARC was set up in 1985 and, procedurally, it was expected to hold a summit annually. Under normal circumstances, therefore, 2020 ought to have marked the Association’s 35th summit, and yet, we find ourselves still stuck on number 19.
At the moment SAARC is caught in a technical mess. One is not sure how to characterise the 19th Summit that was supposedly “held” in Islamabad. Barring Nepal, the then SAARC Chair, none of the remaining six members participated in deference to India’s fury. On the one hand, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif “addressed” the 19th SAARC Summit, which means that the summit was held; and yet on the other hand, he “postponed” the summit, which means he himself understood that the summit was not to be officially recognised. Moreover, he declared that new dates would be announced soon. We are still waiting.
In technical sense, therefore, Nepal is the longest surviving chair of SAARC, having assumed that role in November 2014. One can understand its discomfiture when it says that “a conducive environment be created soon to ensure the participation of all member states in the 19th SAARC summit in line with the spirit of the SAARC charter”. In short, SAARC cannot move an inch until Pakistan reconvenes the 19th summit and all member-states participate in it, most notably India. Pakistan will have to bell the cat but in order to do so a conducive diplomatic climate has to be created to ensure India’s participation. The condition India has set for Pakistan is an impossible one. Not only must it shun all its terrorist activities in India, but it is India alone that will certify that it has done so. See the catch?
It is against this background that one may analyse India’s SAARC diplomacy in the era of Covid-19. What happened at the video meet was just a half step taken by India to gauge the regional mood. Most importantly, would Pakistan play ball? Pakistan did play ball but with a twist. Unlike other SAARC nations, which were represented at the highest level, Prime Minister Imran Khan sent his Special Assistant on Health to represent Pakistan.
Clearly, Pakistan did not want India to steal the show and claim credit for restarting the SAARC process through a back door, especially when procedurally that task was Pakistan’s in its capacity as the chair. Any objective observer of regionalism should find this India-Pakistan game of ping pong disgusting. But that is what the reality of SAARC is. In any case, the first round of the COVID-SAARC diplomatic tango between India and Pakistan ended this way. In the second round, it was Pakistan’s turn to take the other half step. As agreed in the 14 March video conference, a virtual meeting of senior health officials was held on 24 April in which all eight SAARC member-states, including India, participated.
In the overall context of the 35-year-old SAARC story, what does one make of these two exercises? If one hopes that they would contribute to end the deadlock by softening India’s stand and allowing Pakistan to reconvene the 19th SAARC Summit with India in attendance, it would be too simplistic a reading of the India-Pakistan reality.
There are two questions we need to ask in evaluating the purpose and outcomes of the two meetings. One, did they effectively address the Covid-19 fallout on regional economies, which already were showing signs of serious devastation? Two, did they contribute to break the India-Pakistan deadlock, which is at the core of SAARC’s current crisis? So far as the first goal is concerned, each nation is already doing its best to arrest the economic damage to its economy. There is little that SAARC can offer. With regard to the second, the answer is: No.
To understand what a serious intervention should entail, consider what the European Union has been doing. On 8 April, midway between the two SAARC Covid-related video meets, the European Union came out with a comprehensive work plan on how to deal with the economic challenge posed by the pandemic. Among the many suggestions put forward by the European Union was an invitation to the Eurozone to present within two weeks proposals on the economic response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and to a call to take stock of actions taken thus far so as to outline a comprehensive and coordinated economic response. It proposed to bolster the healthcare sector and civil protection mechanisms through fiscal measures to the tune of 3% of the European Union’s GDP.
The European Union also decided to allocate 37 billion Euros for a Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative to allow the hardest hit member states to get access to financial support of up to 800 million Euros in the current year. It also launched a 750 billion Euro Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme (PEPP) to expand the range of eligible assets under the corporate sector purchase programme (CSPP) so as to ensure that all sectors of the economy could benefit from supportive financing conditions that enabled them to absorb the Corona shock. There were many other details in the plan.
In comparison, even before the SAARC proposal towards building a Covid-19 Emergency Fund could take-off, it faltered on procedural issues, a victim of diplomatic wrangling between India and Pakistan. Besides, the fact that the fund was a modest one of about $19 million, to which India contributed the lion’s share of $10 million, controversy arose with regard to its handling agent. To sideline Pakistan, theoretically the current chair of SAARC, it was decided that the fund would be operationalised neither by any individual member nor by the SAARC Secretariat. Instead, each contributing state would be responsible for approval and disbursement of the required funds in response to requests received from others.
On the face of it, this was a harmless arrangement. Pakistan, however, smelt a rat. It refused to contribute anything to the fund unless it was agreed upon that the operating agency would be the SAARC Secretariat. Only thus, Pakistan contended, would it qualify as a SAARC initiate and pave the way to restart the stalled summit process. It is likely that Pakistan will register the support of other member-states on the matter. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, has held phone conversations with his counterparts from Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. Tellingly, he did not consult his Afghan and Indian counterparts. Bhutan was ignored outright, for reasons explained above.
Qureshi’s conversation with his Bangladeshi counterpart, AK Abdul Momen, are especially revealing here. Following the conversation, Pakistan’s position on the fund was outlined in a Pakistan Foreign Office readout, which said, “Discussing the need to share resources, it was underlined that SAARC Covid-19 Emergency Fund should be placed under the Secretary General of SAARC and the modalities for its utilisation should be finalized through consultations at the earliest.” The current Secretary General of SAARC is the veteran Sri Lankan diplomat Esala Ruwan Weerakoon, who recently succeeded Pakistan’s Amjad Hussain Sial.
The conclusion is simple. From day one, SAARC is an amphitheatre where Indian and Pakistani gladiators display their muscles and other member-states occupy the bleachers, cheering one, then the other. Their vested interest is in perpetuating the game, not in victory for either gladiator. It is a tragic truth that we South Asians love to privilege form over substance. Take the example of India’s latest return to a worn-out cliché, “self-reliance”. From the days of Tagore’s Ghare Baire (1916, The Home and the World), through Nehruvian India’s emphasis on a mixed economy, we have heard about this ideal and its many avatars. After having exhausted its stock of pompous (form over substance) schemes like Skill India, Make in India, and so on, the Modi government has returned once again to that well-worn shibboleth of self-reliance, relying cynically on the economic crisis wrought by Covid-19. If the idea presupposes the end of India’s honeymoon with globalisation, one would be intrigued to see how it in any way promotes regional cooperation. After all, even in the best of times, South Asian economies are competitive, not complementary.
The author is Senior Fellow, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. He was ICSSR National Fellow and Professor of South Asian Studies at JNU. The views are personal.