Monday, June 25, 2018

Rethinking India’s SAARC Outreach – A Legacy of Fractured Engagement

SAARC + ASEAN is emerging as an important strategic region in the world, and India should not only engage meaningfully with the region but also protect her interests. I wish to restrict my perspective in this article to SAARC, and wish to outline my views about rethinking India’s SAARC Outreach. With Pakistan’s bitter struggle at various global platforms marked by calumny, to paint India negatively - SAARC was an institution which never made any progress beyond the usual.

However, considering two of the major countries in the Group have nuclear capabilities, and almost all countries in the Group suffered from extremism and terrorism, prevalence of poverty, governance issues, underdevelopment and deep seated socio-political divisions and occasional territorial disputes in countries and between countries in the region – SAARC is successful in loosely holding the region together through such turbulences, without having major spill-overs. More so than in the past, SAARC region – given its geo-political and geo strategic location with absolutely essential maritime trade lanes in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea – is a region which India cannot ignore.

Though India has had a dominant role in the Grouping, no serious attempts were made, to address the trust deficit among the countries in the Group. Other such efforts such as EU, which took shape during the same time as SAARC inception - graduated from the Coal Community to Customs Union to Common Market, EC, Single Currency, Schengen visa regime and finally the EU.  With protectionist measures – such as by the present US Administration or the Brexit – there are strong headwinds   indicating a possibility for how SAARC might end up. This is not in India’s interest given the geo-political ramifications, with a cash-rich China in the neighbourhood, willing to dole out countries for better access to their domestic markets. 

India, given its size, population, economy and central location is indeed the pivot of SAARC. With Prime Minister Sri. Narendra Modi, inviting SAARC Leaders for his government’s inauguration in May 2014 – greater impetus was given to – neglected till then – participatory diplomacy in regional cooperation under SAARC. Though over the course of last four years, India has taken several initiatives to improve trade relations with all member countries – there are differences in perception of citizenry of member countries, which remain largely unaddressed thus far.

When we examine India’s relations with the region across three important spheres – economic, political and national security – there is enough reason to highlight the hesitant and a bit apathetic approach of the Indian Government towards better outlook/ties in the political sphere, which is adversely impacting our national security compass. It can be argued that India should adopt a synergistic approach which will intertwine all the three spheres into one – and such measures would have an inevitable effect of simultaneously enhancing regional cooperation with member countries as well as address national security concerns.

Recent overtures by China with at least 5 out of 7 member countries in SAARC region – have had a cascading effect on India – SAARC relations. Furthermore, India has not sought to project itself effectively in the recent times, and has adopted a less than proactive approach towards fostering regional ties and economic engagement. There is growing discomfort in the political circles of member countries to assess India’s enthusiasm for their concerns – and it may have implications on the future of India ties with member countries and also the relevance of SAARC as a group.

An independent India in 1947, emerging out of abject poverty due to odious British Rule, pursued a Non-Aligned Path as one of the key features/objectives of her Foreign Policy. This approach helped us achieve scale, and not succumb to political pressures of bi-polar world. Today, India is a newly industrialized country, an emerging power now – and it warrants a rethink on our passive diplomatic approaches thus far. We as a Nation, should actively engage – in all the three spheres – economic, political and national security, to positively contribute towards economic growth of our neighbours, engage with political leadership of member countries and protect our national security interests in the region and beyond.

        - Abhijith Jayanthi 
           June 24, 2018