The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation might have turned 35 but its three-and-a-half decades of existence has largely failed to advance its own central tenet—regional cooperation.
As SAARC marked its 35th anniversary with a flurry of congratulatory messages from heads of government, expressing their commitment to regional cooperation, many analysts and diplomats wonder if these promises will ever translate into action. The regional association has failed to hold its 19th summit, ever since 2016 when India suddenly decided to pull out of a planned meeting in Islamabad, accusing Pakistan of failing to control cross-border terrorism.
“I don’t see any immediate progress in holding the summit due to the Indian government’s recent decision on Jammu and Kashmir,” said Madhu Raman Acharya, a former foreign secretary. “Nepal, as the current chair of SAARC, could take steps to reach out to both India and Pakistan. But Nepal has its own boundary dispute with India and it has not even been able to talk to the Indian leadership.”
The bloc of seven South Asian countries, and Afghanistan, has largely been held hostage to the India-Pakistan rivalry, say analysts and experts.
Ever since Narendra Modi’s rise in India in 2014, New Delhi has attempted to eschew SAARC, largely to circumvent Pakistan, in favour of another regional grouping—BIMSTEC (the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), which does not include Pakistan.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party even dropped SAARC from its election manifesto, while making a clear reference of BIMSTEC, earlier this year when India went to polls.
In a message issued on Saturday, on the eve of SAARC Charter Day, Modi once again focused on terrorism, which has always been India’s chief concern with Pakistan.
“Our efforts for greater collaboration have repeatedly been challenged with threats and acts of terrorism,” said Modi in his message. “Such an environment impedes our shared objective of realising the full potential of SAARC.”
It is critical that all countries in the region take effective steps to defeat the scourge of terrorism and the forces that support it, said Modi. “This will generate greater trust and confidence to build a stronger SAARC,” the Indian Prime Minister said in his message.
Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli said that Nepal, as the current chair, is firmly committed to the SAARC Charter, its principles and its objectives.
“As a founding member and current chair of SAARC, Nepal pledges to continue to constructively engage with fellow members to collectively realise the hope of the people of this region,” Oli said in a message.
Despite Oli’s commitments, Nepal too has failed to take any concrete steps to revive SAARC, said Acharya, the former foreign secretary.
“As SAARC chair, Nepal can convene a foreign secretary-level meeting or a meeting on eliminating terrorism,” he said. “But we haven’t taken any measures to advance the stalled process.”
A research paper published last year by the Observer Research Foundation, an Indian think tank, attributed SAARC’s failure to, apart from India-Pakistan rivalry, the asymmetry between India and other member countries in terms of geography, economy, military strength and influence in the global arena. This all makes smaller countries apprehensive, according to the paper.
“Second, SAARC does not have any arrangement for resolving disputes or mediating conflicts,” said the paper. “Disputes among member countries often hamper consensus building, thus slowing down the decision-making process.”
Given SAARC’s failures, added the paper, member countries have turned to bilateralism, which in turn has adversely affected the organisation. “Lastly, SAARC faces a shortage of resources and countries have been reluctant to increase their contributions.”
While the 19th summit remains in limbo, several accords, announcements, agreements and understandings signed and declared in the last 35 years remain unfulfilled or partially fulfilled.
Officials at the SAARC Secretariat said that though there is no serious dialogue ongoing among the member states regarding the 19th summit, meetings at the ministerial, technical and official levels are taking place on a regular basis.
But that’s not sufficient for the regional grouping to have any real effect, analysts say.
In September, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, a meeting of SAARC Council of Ministers took place in New York, but the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan chose to snub each other.
Many say SAARC is now moribund, given the lack of interest on the part of any member states to hold the summit.
“It is unprecedented in the history of SAARC that its summit has been stalled for five long years,” said Nishcal Nath Pandey, executive director of the Center for South Asian Studies, a think tank based in Kathmandu. “All member states should collectively share the blame for this as they have behaved irresponsibly towards their own regional organisation.”
Pandey questioned the rationale behind spending taxpayers’ money to fund the Secretariat and other SAARC activities, which have failed to yield any results.
“The observers also need to share the blame for maintaining their silence despite SAARC failing to take off,” Pandey told the Post. “Nepal as the chair must call an extraordinary meeting of the SAARC Council of Ministers to decide the future course of this organisation.”