India’s decision not to attend the upcoming South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) conference in Islamabad marks a long over-due statement of a simple principle: Diplomatic engagement between South Asia’s two nuclear powers cannot exist in a bubble, unaffected by the crises erupting around it. That New Delhi is not alone in its ire has also become clear. Dhaka, incensed by Pakistan’s declarations of support for war-criminals it is prosecuting for their roles in the 1971 genocide, has followed New Delhi’s lead; Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, has chosen to stay away, saying he is busy dealing with “imposed terrorism”. Bhutan, though not a directly affected party, has stood by India, too. The decision not to attend SAARC is not of any great strategic consequence; the grouping has been long rendered dysfunctional by the many varied neurosis the region is beset by. However, New Delhi has sent out a clear message that business will not go on as usual. There is no doubt New Delhi needed to send out this message, or risk being pushed by public opinion into more visceral, and damaging, courses of action.
The reality is that boycotting SAARC will not hurt Pakistan in any meaningful way. Nor will regional isolation. China, the United States and the Persian Gulf states are Pakistan’s big concerns, not Bangladesh or Afghanistan. Here, Indian diplomacy has a tough task ahead. The US, always wary of rising tensions in South Asia, called on Wednesday for a “de-escalation of the political discourse” in the region, adding that it wished to see “normalisation of the relationship between India and Pakistan”. Frustrated as it might be at Pakistan’s continued provision of safe havens to terrorists, Washington has proved reluctant to crack the whip, fearing it will lose what influence it has among the generals who run the country. Leverage comes with a price — and having determined that it is willing to continue tolerating some level of Pakistan-backed terrorism against its own troops, Washington clearly wants New Delhi to do the same.
In resisting calls to go to war, or to sever diplomatic relations with Pakistan, Prime Minister Modi has acted with wisdom: The SAARC move signals India’s anger, without closing any doors that might be important in days and weeks to come. The danger, though, is that New Delhi is trying to do too much, too quickly. The emperor, Marcus Aurelius, who represented the zenith of Roman imperial power, peppered his letters to his governors with two words: Spuede bradeos, or make haste slowly. To the efficient despatch of business, the prime minister must add the slowness of careful reflection.