A quarter century is a long time in international relations. But in South Asia, times—and events —move at a glacial pace. So it is hardly surprising that the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) is pretty much where it was when it was founded, in 1985.
Consider the facts. Saarc countries (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan) are home to 1.6 billion people. Yet trade within this group remains a fraction of what is witnessed in other regional trade forums such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Clearly there is much that is wrong here. At the root of this lack of movement are two interlinked problems. For one, South Asians do not appreciate economic prosperity. Perhaps this is too harsh a judgement. But what else can one say in the face of a series of bilateral squabbles and misgivings at a multilateral forum. In spite of the South Asian Free Trade Area agreement, trade and commerce are quite low on the priority list in Islamabad, Kathmandu, Dhaka and other capitals.
The forthcoming Thimpu Saarc summit is no exception. There is no mention of trade and commerce. A potential Manmohan Singh-Yousuf Raza Gilani meeting has overshadowed everything else. Which brings us to our second point: In a region marked by mistrust between various countries, a multilateral cooperation forum is either a recipe for chaos or serves as an annual jamboree for elected (and unelected) officials. Clearly, bilateral issues are more important for Saarc countries and regional prosperity less so.
So why was Saarc founded at all? While the question is best left to historians, the age in which it was created holds a clue or two. In 1985, the Cold War was to remain alive for another five years. As a result, some sentimental ideas continued to bear power and imagination. “South-South” cooperation and non-alignment were two ideas that could be said to be the intellectual precursors of something as unworkable as Saarc. Twenty-five years later, the world is a changed place, but South Asians cannot summon the courage to say no to an idea that was stillborn.
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