Modi’s initiative to revive SAARC, fallen into disuse, by extending invitations to his swearing-in as the Prime Minister on May 26, pointedly, to both Sri Lanka and Pakistan, alongside Nepal, Bhutan, Afghanistan, the Maldives and Bangladesh, is a typically optimistic and bold move from him.
When they come, even the composition of their delegations will speak volumes. Sri Lanka’s President Rajapaksha, for example, is reported to be bringing along Chief Minister from the Northern Province, Sri Lanka that would have been Eelam.
If Nawaz Sharif comes, he will be daring the Pakistani Taliban and other groups that do not want any rapprochement with India, and also he needs the tacit approval of his all-powerful Army/ISI formations. And, if he doesn’t or omits to send a delegation in his place, the Pakistanis will have denied themselves an opportunity in the full glare of international witness. Afghanistan is making new linkages after Obama’s troop pullout, both with India and its friend Iran. And perhaps, tiny Maldives, included for once, will think twice before insulting India the next time the opportunity presents itself.
Modi, on his part, is sending a message to both India’s domestic and international audience. It says the NDA is about to form a substantial majority Government for the first time in 30 years, free of the crippling coalition pressures that had this country in its thrall for decades.
Now, Modi can afford to speak out, and is determined to speak clearly to India’s neighbours on matters of bilateral and multilateral interest. The doves with regard to Pakistan and Sri Lanka have been outflanked, and so have the hawks. India is also taking a lead as the largest country in SAARC, a responsibility it has long neglected.
China, the strongest power in Asia, and amongst the top powers in the world, both militarily and economically, our neighbour on many sides is not a part of SAARC; but happily, President Xi is due to be amongst the very first State visitors in June. Modi has been to China five times and has been treated with great respect there, and the Chinese media have welcomed his victory and called him ‘India’s Nixon’ with the great expectations it implies.
But for the moment, if SAARC amounts to anything once more, it will be because Modi has seized the first available moment to make it so. Beyond the token carping from the Tamils in Tamil Nadu, used to getting their way with the weak UPA Government, and the obdurate people who don’t want to deal with Pakistan at all, everyone else thinks it makes a great deal of sense.
The gesture also undercuts and undermines the poison of those who expected Modi to be belligerent with Pakistan without reason, and thanks the Muslims who voted for the BJP. It also demonstrates friendship and goodwill, long missing from our neighbourhood. The Kashmiri separatists, deftly outclassed, were quick to acknowledge the master stroke that cuts the ground from beneath their feet.
The Liberal-Left intellectuals here and abroad are also knocked off course and trying to regroup. And perhaps, the Sri Lankans and Pakistanis will stop hauling off our fishermen. Bangladesh will get its Teesta River Water Accord whether Mamata Banerjee of TMC likes it or not, along with India’s ample thanks for putting a spoke in the wheel of terrorist activity out of Bangladesh.
SAARC, the South Asian block of countries forming a large chunk of the erstwhile British India, even as it excludes Myanmar and the then British Indian administered parts of the Gulf, has fallen on bad days. With the continuous rise of China, even ASEAN, much better configured once, in the era of the ‘Asian Tigers’, is not what it used to be. Trade blocs and regional groupings are subject to such flux throughout history, and revival signals a resurgence of one or more of its constituents afresh.
The G-8, presently truncated to G-7, with the temporary ousting of Putin-ruled Russia, and the more commodious G-20 in which India plays a minor part; BRICS with several of its component countries economically tarnished, are also floundering on a sea of economic woes and competing vested interests.
Almost as irrelevant in today’s world of diplomacy is the hoary Commonwealth. Today, it features obscure Pacific Islanders in a reminder of just how extensively Britannia once ruled the waves, and how it has fallen in stature in what were its more substantial holdings.
But reviving SAARC is a signal to the world that India itself is on a path of growth and revival, ready to shun insularity and shrug off weakness, and do its bit as a regional and global player.