Still no commonality

The heads of state or government of the seven-nation South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), meeting in Dhaka on Saturday and Sunday, reaffirmed their commitment to promote regional cooperation, as they had done before. Grand ideas were put forward, including the possibility of forming an economic union, though the member states still seem, by and large, unable to rise above their narrow national outlook to realise the goals and objectives set forth in the SAARC Charter two de-cades ago. Some of the members, more importantly India and Pakistan, have yet to overcome their deep mutual distrust. As a result, SAARC has nothing so concrete to hold up to the South Asian people as an achievement, nor has it been able to project a common approach in the world as a regional grouping.

Therefore, the main interest that any SAARC summit has tended to generate in the region and beyond has been the informal bilateral meetings between leaders on the sidelines of the summit, particularly those between Indian and Pakistani leaders. As for Nepalis, that between King Gyanendra and Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, who met one-on-one for 40 minutes on Sunday, has been of particular interest, against the background of suspended democracy in Nepal and of cooled relations between the two governments after the February 1 royal step. According to reports from Dhaka, Singh told the King that “restoration of democracy is only possible if the King involves political parties in the process” and that the King assured Singh that he was committed to doing so as soon as possible. However, the major political parties at home view the King’s ‘anti-terrorism’ pitch and ‘pro-election’ assurance in Dhaka merely as ploys to confuse the international community.

The SAARC charter prohibits raising bilateral issues at SAARC forums, but member states have sometimes tried to bring up bilateral or even internal affairs. And the member states would have to amend the charter if they changed their minds on bilateral issues, or if they considered admitting any nation as a member, as an observer, or as a dialogue partner. In Dhaka, Pakistan mooted China’s interest in being associated with SAARC, and Nepal proposed that it should be given an ‘observer status’, to which India expressed its objection, proposing instead that China should be engaged with SAARC in a mutually beneficial manner by signing an MoU, to start with. Similarly, Afghanistan is keen to join SAARC. However, SAARC should develop eligibility criteria for entry in each of the three capacities, because hurry is no virtue in itself.