Monday, May 3, 2010

Should Marginal Meetings Dominate SAARC Summits?

Should Marginal Meetings Dominate SAARC Summits?

Saeed Naqvi

Dated: 30.04.2010

When josh Malihabadi first migrated to Pakistani carrying his baggage of Lucknow Urdu, hosts organizing any Mushaira or Poetic gathering were nervous wrecks by the time the evening ended, a good part of their time having been spent seating Hafeez Jullundari, (aggressively Punjabi) away from Josh to avoid linguistic bloodshed.

But in a cross-legged, sideways, sliding movement they generally inched towards each other, armed with barbs.

“The national language of hell”, observed Josh “Will probably be Punjabi?”

“In that case you must do a crash course in Punjabi” quipped Hafeez, “because, given your excesses, your descent to hell is guaranteed”.

Such episodes did not derail poetic symposia, rather they added to the ambience. Which cannot be said of Indo-Pak monopoly on arc lamps at SAARC summits.

Imagine a well laid out table for eight, a sit down dinner, where the host expects the conversation to spread evenly between the gregarious and the more retiring, focused preferably on a theme of interest to all the guests. But, violating the table’s d├ęcor, two of the guests seated opposite each other, raise the decibel level, then point knives or, in a tender moment, pluck out flowers from the central vase and exchange them. Every gesture is amplified by the media to a degree that, like a cinema trick, the sit-down dinner dissolves into a session of hugging or wrestling, alternately.

This has been the fate of every SAARC summit since the grouping’s inception in 1985. The sixteenth SAARC summit at Thimpu, capital of Bhutan has been somewhat different partly because the young President of the Maldives Mohamed Nasheed ticked off two of the most important summiteers for their tendency to keep the focus away from SAARC’s common agenda. Moreover, in the presence of Hamid Karzai, President of Afghanistan, the eighth member of the South Asian grouping, Indo-Pak sparring has become meaningless unless Af-Pak is also brought into the discourse. But there can be no earthly justification even for this enlarged, triangular format, overseen by the Americans, to overwhelm the much more constructive agenda SAARC should address.

It is not as if the absence of Indo-Pak distraction will somehow propel the grouping towards breathless momentum.

In fact the very reason that SAARC was conceived had some negative impulses attending it.

Until 1971, the fiercest phase of the cold war, Indian and Pakistani, foreign policies consisted largely in neutralizing each other’s influence globally. The Bangladesh war of 1971, dramatically altered the geography on the Indian subcontinent. India became a large country surrounded by small neighbours.

It was elementary balance of power politics that each one of the neighbours, without exception, began to flourish a China card tucked away in the top pocket. The Chinese connection would enable them to keep the Indian Gulliver pinned down.

The china card at that period in history had acquired a new potency because the Nixon-Kissinger opening to Beijing had weakened India’s patron, the Soviet Union.

This explains the Morarji Desai led Janata government’s introduction of the phrase “genuine non alignment”, which indicated a shift away from strategic dependence exclusively on the Soviet Union.

Foreign Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s visit to Beijing in 1978 had, among its other purposes, a desire to establish links with the “principal” the neighbours were utilizing to balance power. The visit was a bit of a debacle because, ignoring Vajpyee’s advice, the Chinese proceeded to “teach Vietnam a lesson“. Even though Sino-Indian relations went into a cooler again, the Chinese too did not emerge from the conflict with flying colours. They were beaten by Vietnam, a fact the western media acknowledged only three years later. (At the beginning of US-China romance how could they hand defeat to the new ally)

It is interesting that while in ASEAN the predominant impulse is to check Chinese power, the thrust in SAARC is to check one of its own members, India.

In the backdrop of these currents, aspirational statements to build railways, roads, energy links between SAARC and ASEAN are audacious but promising.

BIMSTEC or the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation is, after all, a cross regional institution consisting of five SAARC (minus Afghanistan, Maldives and Pakistan) and two ASEAN countries, namely Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

SAARC – Japan special fund is, likewise, a cross regional link. A most encouraging push within SAARC came during Bangladesh Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina’s 2009 visit to New Delhi when Mongla and Chittagong ports were made available for Indian use. Nepal and Bhutan were to be given access to Mongla.

Since sixty years of bilateralism with Pakistan increasingly looks like a chronicle of wasted time, who knows pegging away at a nagging length within ASEAN may wear out the Pakistan establishment’s (not the people, mind you) obstinacy on India.

As Brajesh Mishra said on TV the other day, the Pakistan Army will never give up its absolute grip on three subjects: relations with India, Afghanistan and the nuclear issue. So what does one make of the goodwill coming out of Thimpu.

There is, in a manner of speaking, a triangular space emerging between New Delhi, the Pak Army and the Pak Civilian establishment, with Gilani as its head.

True, Gen. Pervez Ashfaq Kayani is the boss at the moment. But no Prime Minister, however curtailed his power, would be so obsequious as to be standing cap-in-hand outside the Rawalpindi GHQ till the cows come home. It is within something like the SAARC framework that Gilani can take baby steps towards real integration in SAARC and with countries within SAARC including India.

Otherwise politics can be played by all sides. Gilani proposed to the visiting Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister trilateral cooperation with Kabul. Well to the Karzai – New Delhi equation can be added Teheran. President Ahmedinijad’s visit to Kabul (Iran is present in Thimpu as observer) or President Pratibha Patil forthcoming state visit to China are all signs of global flux. The Global economy in Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz’s famous words is in “Freefall”, Greece came close to default. This is the time for nimble movement in SAARC and outside.

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