Much has been said over the week since India’s new Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi pulled a rabbit out of the hat and invited the leaders of all South Asian nations for his swearing-in ceremony last Monday. The move has been widely hailed as ground-breaking; a new beginning in good neighbourliness and an effort to [...]


The mini SAARC summit


Much has been said over the week since India’s new Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi pulled a rabbit out of the hat and invited the leaders of all South Asian nations for his swearing-in ceremony last Monday.

The move has been widely hailed as ground-breaking; a new beginning in good neighbourliness and an effort to repair India’s fractured relations with its neighbours, including Sri Lanka. It was also read as a push-start for the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) vehicle that has stalled on the road to making South Asia an economic power-house, given its vast human resources.

Since its inception in the early 1980s, SAARC has always been challenged by India’s meddlesome foreign policy in the region. India seems to have taken a cynical, somewhat superior view of SAARC because of its sheer geographic presence and lingering fear of a conspiracy by its neighbours to undermine it. Though clearly always primus inter pares (first among equals), India was unable to provide leadership, its paranoia over Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir overshadowing SAARC.
Much on the lines of Jawaharlal Nehru’s Panchasheela doctrine for the Non-Aligned Movement, one-time Indian Prime Minister I.J. Gujral enunciated the Gujral Doctrine for SAARC, but it slipped into limbo with his exit. SAARC summits were often postponed due to India’s hegemony instincts; for instance, the 11th summit at Katmandu had to be delayed because of the triple K factor — Kandahar, Kashmir, Kabul. Sri Lanka was no exception to Indian bullying.

When they were held, the summits were a farce; merely paying lip service to regional cooperation while clamping down on every possible exchange be it tourists, professionals, cultural troupes, students, youth or journalists, as India looked beyond SAARC, first to South East Asia (ASEAN) and eventually the West (US).
Let no one therefore be swept away by the Modi move. India under the new BJP Government will continue to “look West”. It is a pro-US, pro-capitalist administration that has occupied the seat of power in New Delhi and that’s what the people of India voted for. The Americans have reciprocated. A country that denied Mr. Modi a visa due to his track-record on human rights abuses has now given markets priority. Washington has already called Delhi to “re-energise US-India ties” and Washington is the path to economic nirvana in Delhi’s eyes.

“Contentious bilateral issues”, the language of the SAARC Charter has plagued the grouping from the inception. Such issues are banned from discussion at summits, but they are what torpedo the movement.”SAARC has pretty teeth,” says a retired Foreign Secretary, Nihal Rodrigo who served as Secretary General at SAARC’s headquarters in Nepal, “it’s just that they don’t show them.” The quote from an old Louis Armstrong song, alludes to the good intentions of the SAARC Charter that refer to a holistic approach to regional co-operation. The group went to the extent of discussing a South Asian Economic Union on the lines of how the European Union evolved and a South Asian Forum at the Thimpu summit in 2010. Where are these highfalutin’ suggestions, one might ask. People’s difficulty in getting visas from one SAARC country to another is a classic example of the distrust that exists.

As India and Pakistan look to the US, and Sri Lanka to China for deliverance, they have all seemingly abandoned SAARC as a lame duck. Even crucial matters like the Indian Ocean’s security, including Non-Traditional Security (NTS) like people smuggling, piracy, gun-running and drug trafficking, are on the back-burner.
Several UN agencies and powerful states have observer status at SAARC because they recognise its geographic importance as the meeting point between the West and the East. China, which has borders with several SAARC states has launched a dialogue called “The Gateway”, but SAARC members do not seem to appreciate their own importance as a group.

Whether Mr. Modi’s gesture in inviting India’s neighbours for an initial ‘getting to know’ party is a hopeful sign or whether it was merely to discuss bilateral issues that have long over-shadowed collective unity, remains to be seen. What is clear is only the fact that the new Indian Premier wants a clean break with Congress foreign policy that got tangled in its own web due to pressures from India’s federal states that had borders with SAARC member-states.

In all the discussions, and the official release from the Indian External Affairs Ministry after Mr. Modi met all SAARC leaders, there are only fleeting references to regional cooperation and SAARC. The references are almost in the abstract while emphasis has been on bilateral issues.

As for President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brief encounter with Prime Minister Modi, it is clear that the South Block (India’s External Affairs Ministry) prepared the briefing papers for the new Indian premier having firmly locked in the 13th Amendment as the centre-piece of Indo-Sri Lanka relations. Sri Lanka’s inability to change the status-quo following the defeat of Indian inspired terrorism in Sri Lanka, and its leader’s verbal indiscretions in boasting that “13 plus” will be given have now resulted in the Indian EAM referring to ” the early and full implementation of 13A and going beyond” in its official statement following the Rajapaksa-Modi talks.

The fact that the new Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj is all too familiar with the developments in Sri Lanka having led an Indian all-party delegation here last year, and made the same demands for the full implementation of the 13A would surely have given a clear indication to Sri Lankan leaders that 13A is a bipartisan Indian policy position on Sri Lanka. There are more than 70 million Tamils in India after all. While the bureaucracy at the South Block also ensures continuity in foreign policy to a large extent, Sri Lanka is also part domestic policy in India.

All this might have come as a rude shock to the Sri Lankan delegation who might have expected a more conciliatory stance from the new leadership in New Delhi. That was wishful thinking and may be why the statement from the Sri Lankan side following the talks does not mention 13A at all. Now comes the news that back channels are at work for the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister’s party AIADMK to join the Modi Government. President Rajapaksa must surely be left to rue; the more things change — the more they remain the same.

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