The excitement that greeted the handshake between the Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers at the end of the 18th SAARC summit in Kathmandu is as unnecessary as the anticipation. Neither the meeting nor the handshake (which was nothing else but courtesy) was going to change anything in the India-Pakistan dynamic. Around the same time when Prime Ministers Modi and Nawaz Sharif were bidding farewell, the Fidayeen attacked in Arnia in the Jammu region, a rude reminder of the ugly reality of India-Pakistan relations.
By not diluting its principled position that Pakistan needs to respect India’s sensitivities on separatism and address its concerns on terrorism for any dialogue between the two countries to become meaningful, Modi has sent a firm message that this time the ‘no business as usual’ position is for real. But at the same time it was also clear that India was not going to let its bilateral troubles with Pakistan impinge on the vision that the new government has for developing SAARC into a vibrant and dynamic regional grouping. Therefore, to blame the failure of the Summit to ink two agreements relating to road and rail connectivity on the so called India-Pakistan logjam is dumbing down of what actually transpired and what was at stake at the SAARC summit.
Despite the frostiness that exists between India and Pakistan, New Delhi was more than willing to put its problems with Islamabad aside in the larger interest of the South Asian community. Pakistan, on the other hand, wanted to play its diplomatic hardball by blocking the agreements. Some Pakistani analysts are of the view that this was Pakistan’s payback for India vetoing the entry of China as a full member of SAARC. There is also talk in Pakistan that these agreements would pave the way for India getting overland transit facilities to Afghanistan and beyond, something that Pakistan could not allow.
Whatever the real reason for Pakistan’s obduracy, the failure to get the agreements through lies squarely on its feet. To drag India into this is completely unwarranted because these agreements were not bilateral but a SAARC deal, which all the other member states wanted. By rubbing the other countries the wrong way, Pakistan has actually done India a favour by not just isolating itself in South Asia but also giving India an opportunity to strengthen relations with SAARC member countries.
Pakistan has not only failed to leverage its own location to become what Nawaz Sharif called ‘a natural economic corridor’, but also its ability to gain access to other South Asian countries like Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan through India. For long, Pakistan has been crowing about its ‘strategic location’, first during Cold War and later during the War on Terror. Now, with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan looming large, and the world economy having undergone a paradigm change, Pakistan’s geographical location is an advantage only in relation to India. All the oil and gas pipelines, power corridors, trade and transit routes become viable only if India is at the other end.
If Nawaz Sharif was genuine and serious about what he said in his Kathmandu speech, then he could have effectively used the SAARC platform. Precisely because these agreements weren’t a bilateral deal with India, Nawaz Sharif could have taken the stand that holding out would make Pakistan appear to be the spoiler. What is more, signing on the dotted line of the agreements isn’t the same thing as actually implementing them. It is another matter that had Pakistan signed but stalled implementation, it would still have got isolated because the other nations would have gone ahead with enhancing connectivity leaving Pakistan out in the cold.
By denying India, all that Pakistan will get is a way to monopolize access to and from Afghanistan, a country which isn’t exactly a land of milk and honey. If anything, Afghanistan is a bottomless pit and Pakistan is welcome to sink in it. The Pakistanis currently dominate the trade with Afghanistan but once the foreigners leave and the money being currently pumped in by the expatriates (both civil and military) dries up, the trade will tumble.
India’s interest in Afghanistan was more altruistic than covetous. There isn’t much purchase in Afghanistan for India except for the fact that India would like to contribute to the stability and well-being of that country. As for gaining access to Central Asia, apart from the fact that the Iranian route is an efficient substitute to the Afpak route, a lot of the talk of Central Asia being some kind of an el Dorado is just hot air. It would, therefore, appear that in order to spite India, the Pakistan has once again cut its nose.
By playing spoiler at the SAARC summit, maybe the Pakistanis have spared India the embarrassment of reneging on the road and rail deal at a later date. A deal like this which would open India to Pakistani traffic is a security nightmare and highly avoidable. But more importantly, Pakistan has opened an opportunity for India to take the sub-regional route with the other South Asian countries from whom India stands to gain a lot more than from Pakistan.
India’s official plus unofficial trade with Bangladesh is around $10 bn. With Sri Lanka, bilateral trade is about $ 5-6 bn. But with Pakistan, it’s just about $2.5 billion – the unofficial trade of about $1-2 billion with Pakistan will continue regardless of whether Pakistan opens up to India or not. Yet, India remains obsessed with Pakistan. Ideally, if Pakistan doesn’t want to join in a mutually beneficial relationship, India should ignore it and instead economically tie with other SAARC countries.
Given Pakistan’s bloody-mindedness, the myth that the SAARC charter can’t be meaningfully implemented without getting both India and Pakistan on board needs to be busted. Without India, there is of course no SAARC. But the same doesn’t stand true for Pakistan. The time has perhaps come to restructure, even partition, SAARC to make it more effective. This is something that might also be required to be done in the likely event that Pakistan fosters the Taliban in Afghanistan. Surely, a Taliban-run Afghanistan cannot be accepted as a member state of SAARC and chances are that Pakistan will continue to insist on its client state remaining in SAARC. This would effectively kill this organisation. Fortunately, an opportunity has now arisen to rethink SAARC and this should be grasped.
(The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author)
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