Colombo: South Asia’s top leadership is meeting in the Sri Lankan capital on Saturday for the 15th time in 23 years since the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) was founded in Dhaka in 1985, but the lack of potential for any real economic progress may mean this summit is over even before it has started.
In all likelihood, the spectre of terrorism across South Asia will dominate the summit. Agreements on the extradition of criminals and terrorists as well as low-profile pacts such as a Saarc development fund and a standards institution are also part of the agenda.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s bilateral meetings with his counterparts in the troubled neighbourhood could be far more interesting than the summit itself.
In his first meeting this evening with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse and a variety of Sri Lankan Tamil groups, including the newly elected chief minister of the eastern provincial council, whose nom de guerre is Pillayan, the Prime Minister stressed the need for Colombo to devolve powers to the provinces, including to the Tamil-dominated northern and eastern provinces, a close aide said on condition of anonymity.
On Saturday, Singh will meet Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, besides his counterparts from Bhutan and Bangladesh, and Maldivian President Abdul Gayoom and outgoing Nepali Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala on Sunday.
A senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity on board the Air India One flight to Colombo, said that in his meeting with the Pakistan prime minister, Singh will “set a different tone” by not blaming Pakistan for the recent bomb blasts in Ahmedabad and Bangalore.
“There is a need to make a distinction between terrorists funded by rogue intelligence agencies in Pakistan and the government in Pakistan,” the senior official said, referring to Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), adding, “Just like (US President George W.) Bush, I feel like asking, who controls the ISI?”
New Delhi’s decision to adopt a conciliatory approach comes despite evidence claimed by the intelligence services of India, the US and the UK, pointing to the involvement of ISI in the suicide bomb attack at India’s embassy in Kabul this month.
For its part, the newly elected government in Islamabad has said it may be willing to drop its so-called “two-list approach” on trade with India and move only to a negative list, an Indian official said.
Along with its refusal to provide most favoured nation status to India, Pakistan is the only country in South Asia that maintains two lists—positive and negative—for trade with India.
While all other countries work on the basis of a negative list—all goods not placed on such a list can be traded—Pakistan also maintains a positive list that catalogues only those goods that can be traded with India.
The Indian official, who was involved in trade negotiations with Pakistan and spoke on condition of anonymity, said Islamabad had recently indicated that it was “willing to move only to the negative list” if relations between the two countries improved.
Singh’s meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai could prove the most interesting. Karzai is turning out to be India’s most important friend in the region, along with Bhutan, especially after his open criticism of ISI for allegedly destabilizing his government and promoting the Taliban.
Karzai’s friendship with India is also illustrated by the fact that he is travelling straight to New Delhi from Colombo after the summit ends. “India is deeply committed to ensuring that Afghanistan doesn’t go under and the Taliban doesn’t succeed,” Singh’s close aide said, adding, “The stakes are very high in Afghanistan. A democratic Afghanistan is the best example for the region.”
The meeting between Indian and Bangladeshi leaders comes against the backdrop of the Tata group withdrawing this week from plans to set up a 2.4 million tonnes (mt) steel plant, a 1,000MW power plant and a 6mt coal mining project, all based on local natural gas reserves in that country. The pull out came after the army-backed interim government of Bangladesh failed to commit the natural gas the projects required.