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12th July 1998

SAARC: Getting its act together?

By Mervyn de Silva

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Though Bangladesh is one of the world's largest states, it was always clear that the future of SAARC would be shaped most by India and Pakistan, two countries that represent the region's generic conflict. The source of the conflict was evidently religion. When the popular press discusses the region, however, it refers to a trio: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. And Bangladesh, the new state, was of course, a direct outcome of Indian intervention. There was never any doubts however of the vitality of Bengali nationalism.

When Sheik Hasina Wajed visited Delhi and Islamabad she took special care to inform the media that she was no ''mediator', that is in Indo-Pakistani problems. The press did not need to refer to the bomb!

It was a Dhaka daily that had already given front page prominence to a report that an Indo-Pak encounter, perhaps even a ''summit'' meeting, in Dhaka was quite likely. What did this turn of events mean? The UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, mindful no doubt of the obligations of his high office, offered this reasonably neutral, if candid answer:

"The five self-declared nuclear powers - the US, Britain, France, Russia and China - need to rethink their positions in the face of argument by India and Pakistan that "you cannot have an exclusive club whose members have the nuclear weapon and are now refusing to disband it, and tell them now not to have it. The nuclear powers need to set an example for other nations,'' the SG observed. Our senses have been lulled a bit. But I think that what happened in India has woken up everybody," he said.

Has it really? It was called the Hindu Bomb, and publicised as such by the media. Does that mean the Pakistani contribution would be an Islamic Bomb?

In this age of identity (not ideology of the old order) will religion and race infiltrate the field of nuclear weaponry? Wait. It is not just the Secretary-General who has sounded the alarm.

He pointed a finger at ''Nuclear states who pledged in 1995 to begin negotiations on treaties to ban production of weapons grade material and renounce any program to help non-nuclear states to acquire nuclear weapons'', wrote Jayantha Dhanapala, the former Sri Lankan career diplomat who now holds the prestigious post of Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament. (Regional Approaches to Disarmament, Security and Stability published by UNIDIR, the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research.)

And so to SAARC. The Colombo summit meets in the shadow of mounting tension between the two major states, economically and militarily India and Pakistan.

Yes, SAARC rules do not permit strictly bilateral issues to be raised. But this is an extraordinary occasion. Students of SAARC would not find a parallel easily.

So it's wiser to examine opinions from ''non-aligned'' pundits - the illustrious Henry Kissinger for instance. The former American Secretary of State has taken a pro-India stance though the man who made the historic ''opening'' to China is no Beijing-baiter.

India, he argues, needs a deterrent against China. What's more he thinks any sanctions against India for ''the tests'' would be a ''mistake''. He goes a step further. Aware of a rapidly growing anti-India lobby in Washington, he warns against punitive measures. A long period of confrontation between the two great democracies would be dangerous.

An even more powerful political figure in Washington, Newt Ginrich has come out strongly, warning President Clinton and his foreign policy advisers not to take the White House ''line'' of equating China and India, and sometimes tilting towards the communist giant.

As for, Prime Minister Vajpayee and his allies, what matters most is to retain the initiative and broaden the BJP's support-base just in case an unforeseen train of events compels a dissolution of Parliament and a general election.

The latest opinion poll by the popular weekly Outlook says 61% support the BJP administration but we know that Mr. Vajpayee and Co., have rivals, unreliable allies and formidable females both in and out of Parliament - such as the leader of the party which matters most to Sri Lanka, Tamilnadu's Jayalalitha..... and of course the inscrutable widow who is biding her time until another Gandhi is ready to protect a dynasty - a factor that has strongly influenced parliamentary politics in the Indian sub-continent, now described officially by SAARC as ''South Asia'', no bow to dynasties. SAARC has not yet got its act together.

Hulftsdorp Hill

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