Last week, at a seminar in New Delhi on the promise and potential of a South Asian unified market, the organizers screened a film in the afternoon, perhaps intending to ward off post-lunch lethargy. The film showed happy, smiling faces of children in Bhutan, lush rice fields in Bangladesh, and cars on dirt roads and mountain tracks as part of a Saarc (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) rally that promoted peace, brotherhood and regional connectivity.
The film reminded me of the story of Catherine the Great sailing down the Volga river in her early years and thinking that all was well with her kingdom by looking at the smiling faces of people standing before clean and beautiful houses. The people, of course, had been instructed to smile, and the houses were mere cardboard fronts—both were orchestrated by her able but ambitious general Potemkin.
Then, in one of those instances that prove there really is a God in the machine (at least sometimes), the screen went dark. The voice-over remained but there was no images. That seemed a realistic portrayal of the South Asian unified market—darkness after noon and no real way towards light.
So, even as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh finds his way to Sri Lanka on 1 August to participate in the 15th Saarc summit that starts the day after, Saarc’s scorecard on economic integration remains dismal. The historically troubled relationship between India and Pakistan has largely prevented the grouping from taking off since its launch in Bangladesh in 1985. Even then, economics was expected to help overcome political differences, but it hasn’t.
Meanwhile, across the eight member countries, poverty continues unabated with up to 40% of the population living without access to basic amenities, though it is quite possible that the nations may be able to address this problem better if they were to do it together.
Saarc leaders, however, remain obsessed with trying to outmanoeuvre each other. Two years ago, Pakistan proposed that China become a Saarc member. India objected and pointed out that China was not a member of South Asia. Fine, said Pakistan, and proposed that the country be invited as an observer. Seeking to balance the China-Pakistan all-weather friendship, India got the US, South Korea and Japan to also apply for membership in the same category.
At this year’s summit in Colombo—it was actually Maldives’ turn to host the summit, but the world’s oldest dictator, Abdul Maumoon Gayoom, who has held power for 28 years and resisted holding free and fair elections, didn’t presumably want hundreds of free-thinking leaders and journalists landing up, and asked Sri Lanka to play the host—Myanmar and Australia have applied for observer status.
Australia’s application is par for the course, especially since Japan and the US are already observers in Saarc, and the country’s foreign policy seems linked to that of the US. Myanmar’s application is more interesting; the country is a close ally of China, and the Chinese have made it quite clear that they would prefer that it remains isolated (the logic being that it would then value its few friends, including China)
This is where India managed to pull off a coup. New Delhi’s quiet diplomatic initiatives targeted at Myanmar are of recent vintage, and come from the decision that there’s no use antagonizing the military dictatorship in Yangon.
India has sought to build close connections with the Myanmarese military, especially with its second most powerful Gen. Maung Aye, offering an alternative to the rapid Chinese takeover of Myanmar. The offer to build, operate and transfer the strategically located port at Sittwe on the Bay of Bengal, and to upgrade the Kaladan waterway network and the connecting highway to Mizoram are all part of this effort.
If Myanmar’s gets the nod, a Myanmarese general will sit at the same table as an American diplomat. The US has tried to persuade the world to impose sanctions on Yangon.
Invoking the Curzonian (or larger) idea of India, some strategic thinkers point to the widespread influence this idea once commanded. Myanmar, or Burma, was after all part of British India till 1935, after which the last king was ordered to live in Ratnagiri (in Maharashtra) where he died. Even without the crutches of imperialist expansion—akin to swear words in a post-Iraq world—India’s efforts to strengthen ties with Myanmar can only benefit the Saarc region.
Still, it’s one thing to welcome more and more countries as observers, and quite another to focus on the reason why Saarc was set up—to promote economic integration and see how a potential economic powerhouse backed by more than 1.5 billion people can perform.
Only, Saarc’s leaders have set the bar so low, they’re content with doing a Saarc development fund, a standards institution, and a pact on mutual assistance in criminal matters in Colombo.
But, where are the big ideas?
Considering that economist-prime minister Manmohan Singh has just emerged victorious from a bloody political bout at home, maybe he should turn his attention region-wards. It’s a good place to go.
Jyoti Malhotra is Mint’s diplomatic affairs editor and writes every week on the intersection of foreign policy, trade and politics.
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