Without improvement in Indo-Pak relations, there is little chance of SAARC realizing its potential
SAARC summit despite all the anticipation of a meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart has come as a big disappointment. Let alone meet each other, the two leaders kept a safe distance and didn’t as much as exchange courtesies. Earlier in the day the foreign minister Sushma Swaraj and the PM Sharif’s advisor on foreign affairs Sartaj Aziz had held a brief meeting which had raised hopes of a Modi-Sharif meeting only to be dashed by the time the day wound down. In his speech PM Modi made a strong pitch for regional integration and turning cynicism into optimism. He lamented that a less than five per cent of the region’s global trade takes place between SAARC nations and that there are few transport and power links among them. “It is still harder to travel within our region than to Bangkok or Singapore; and, more expensive to speak to each other,” he said. Modi for a good measure also brought up the “horror of the terror attack in Mumbai in 2008” and the “endless pain of the lost lives”. But as it turned down, the key proposals to integrate energy grids and free up road and rail movement ran into a Pakistan roadblock. These proposals are seen as crucial for improving cross-border trade, which remains minimal between SAARC countries. In his speech PM Sharif said that his vision for the region was of a dispute-free South Asia where instead of fighting one another, the countries jointly fought poverty, illiteracy, disease, malnourishment and unemployment. Earlier arriving in Nepal, Sharif said it was India which needed to take initiative to resume dialogue considering it was New Delhi which had earlier cancelled foreign secretary level talks in August. If there is any takeaway from yet another non-achieving SAARC, it is that without improvement in India, Pakistan relations, there is little chance of SAARC realizing its potential. And that is unlikely to happen unless the two countries resolve their long-standing issues, including Kashmir. Other option is if SAARC itself leads to a progressive regional integration which in turn takes care of the political and economic issues between the countries.