Still feeling its way

It now looks likely that the twice-postponed 13th SAARC summit will be held on November 12 and 13, to be preceded, as a matter of routine, by the meeting of the council of SAARC foreign ministers (Nov. 10-11). If all the summits of SAARC had been annually held according to the SAARC charter, the impending Dhaka summit would be the 21st. This fact speaks volumes about the level of seriousness of member countries about making SAARC achieve the stated objectives. Host Bangladesh has taken the tightest possible security measures for the two-day affair, postponed nine months ago at India’s request on the grounds of inadequate security situation in Dhaka and the February 1 royal takeover in Nepal.

While, to Bangladesh, holding the summit may mean a matter of prestige, much of the shine of the summit, however, seems already to be wearing off because of the reported non-participation or the mere attendance by the executive heads of state or government of the two biggest and most powerful member states. Indian prime minister Dr. Manmohan Singh is likely to fly to Dhaka only for a few hours, and Pakistan’s chief executive, president Gen. Pervez Musharraf, will be sending his prime minister to attend the summit. This may be interpreted as a powerful indication of the level of importance SAARC still receives from its members. Besides, the brief and tight schedule of the Indian prime minister suggests that, in the context of the cooling of the Nepal-India relations since February 1, he and the leader of the Nepali delegation may not be able to compare notes on the sidelines of the summit.

In the two decades of its existence, SAARC has failed to produce tangible results; however, it has earned a reputation for its myriad declarations, commitments and acts of dedicating particular years and decades to particular themes. Negligible has been its progress on putting into action its Integrated Programme of Action. On launching the South Asia Free Trade Area ( SAFTA) from January 2006, however, the member states have narrowed down their differences, but its scheduled launching is still in doubt. Besides, SAARC is characterised by its failure to follow up on what has been committed or launched. No less glaring is its failure to project a group identity, like that of ASEAN or the EU, to assert its interests in the wider world. To give SAARC a useful life, its members would have to take up these and other challenges one by one, and the best way to do so would be to focus on what unites them rather than what divides them.