Column: Saarc needs Modi magic

Published: November 25, 2014 12:18 AM

In Kathmandu, he must ensure that Saarc is not held hostage to the chronic Indo-Pak conflict

The 18th summit of heads of governments of the eight South Asian countries that make up the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) is scheduled for November 26-27 in Kathmandu. There are strong portents that this could be summit with a difference, one that could place Saarc on a higher trajectory in its evolution.

There is a strong possibility that this summit could see the finalisation of the road-transport agreement amongst Saarc members. There is also talk of the regional railways agreement and South Asian power grid being approved. This would represent a real breakthrough in improving physical connectivity in the subcontinent, especially if Pakistan also decides to join. The transport agreement, a component of the multi-modal transport proposal approved earlier by the ministers, will lay the basis for unimpeded movement of commercial vehicles from Dhaka to Kabul and from Kathmandu to Chennai. The big question, of course, is whether Pakistan will join, and if it does come on board, will it permit transit rights for Indian vehicles to reach Afghanistan?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, attending his first Saarc summit, can ensure that this does indeed witness the long-awaited breakthrough and, unlike in the past, Saarc is not held hostage to the chronic Indo-Pak conflict. This unfortunate circumstance has held back regional cooperation in the South for more than three decades. It is time that this Gordian Knot is finally cut. This will require Modi to take some bold steps. In doing so, he will emulate Atal Bihari Vajpayee whose term was characterised by a fresh and bold approach towards Saarc and India’s South Asian neighbours. There are six tangible steps that Modi can take to push Saarc forward despite the Indo-Pak rivalry.

Modi has already laid the groundwork for these initiatives by having already invited South Asian leaders to his government’s swearing-in ceremony and his path-breaking visit to Kathmandu. As a result, expectations are already high. This is also reinforced by the clear shift in India’s posture towards Saarc. From having effectively opposed the regional formation until rather recently, India has now demonstrated its strong support for it and willingness to take the extra step for its success.

The first measure is to announce India’s willingness to provide unimpeded access across its territories to regional freight carriers, but extending this to cover Myanmar as well. This measure will provide a huge fillip to intra-Saarc trade, which has been stagnating at a measly 4% of total South Asian trade flows. India’s central location and size makes it imperative for it to take an unambiguous stand on facilitating transborder movement of people and freight across South Asian space.

The related second step is to address the vexed issue of visa regimes in the region. In the case of India and Pakistan, the current visa arrangements defy all logic except as a cussed attempt to prevent the growth of people-to-people relationship. Cynics would tell us that both governments covertly welcome such an outcome, as they are genuinely apprehensive of a rising momentum in people-to-people interaction. It is also true that both in Bangladesh and Pakistan there is massive demand for Indian visas. That is clearly an advantageous position for India, which it should build upon. Therefore, it is time that India considers further liberalisation of the visa regime to be announced by Modi at the summit.

Third, India should announce its intention to bring the digital and telecommunication connectivity across South Asia at par with India’s other trading partners. It is supreme irony that telecom rates within South Asia remain higher than for communications outside the region. Moreover, India and Pakistan do not permit roaming facilities for mobile telephones, ostensibly due to security reasons. My repeated enquiry from all concerned on how this improves our security has never been answered satisfactorily. It is time to eliminate this Luddite feature, which only constraints honest traders and tourists.

Fourth, India should announce a large recurring annual grant for strengthening the Saarc Secretariat. In return, it should insist on the Secretariat being manned by high quality professionals. Diplomats could qualify but not be the exclusive cadre from which such talent is selected for long-term tenures. This will greatly improve the delivery capacity of the Secretariat. This step will contribute to the growth of a class of professionals who are committed to and specialised in promoting regional cooperation in South Asia.

Fifth, India should announce a Kailash Satyarthi Fund to be used for fighting against any form of child and women trafficking, exploitation and bondage in South Asia. By so honouring the Nobel Laureate, Modi will create an organisation that will, while pursuing its stated goals, help in the fight against the worst forms of social malpractices in the region. Modi can be assured that this one measure will win him friends and gratitude in all South Asian countries.

Sixth, an even bolder step would be for India to announce unilateral liberalisation of market access for Pakistan’s exports without any longer waiting for the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status being granted by Pakistan. This is not likely to happen because the ‘establishment’ in Pakistan is opposed to it. And, in any case, India already has a huge trade surplus with Pakistan. The ‘establishment’ plays on the ordinary Pakistani’s fear that this trade deficit will only worsen if Pakistan grants India the MFN or NDMA (Non-Discriminatory Market Access). Before taking this step, Modi will have to explain to the Indian people the likely positive outcomes of this measure for India. He will have to convince himself and his party colleagues that unilateral economic and commercial liberalisation will enhance India’s standing amongst the Pakistan business community and civil society. At the same time, it will remove another argument that is used by the Pakistani armed forces establishment along with its junior partners in the bureaucracy and diplomatic core against normalisation of ties with India. Such a development will be in India’s national interest.

Modi has a track record of converting ideas into implementable projects and then successfully executing them. Rejuvenation of Saarc is one such idea. All six proposals given here are individually implementable projects, amenable to deadlines. If implemented, each of them will make a tangible positive impact on regional economic cooperation in South Asia. Modi will achieve a real breakthrough in Kathmandu by announcing these implementable steps. He should eschew any attempt at outlining a grandiose vision or using high rhetoric, which has so far resulted in greater disappointment in the region. In any case, that is not his style. He has an uncanny knack for seizing an opportunity. One such opportunity to change South Asia’s destiny beckons him in Kathmandu. Let’s hope he seizes it.

Rajiv Kumar

The author is senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research, and founder director, Pahle India Foundation

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