Taking some of India’s neighbours by surprise, Prime Minister Narendra Modi Friday proposed that leaders from South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries should chalk out a plan to fight the coronavirus pandemic, starting with a discussion via “video-conferencing”.
Given the urgency of the public health crisis, sources told The Indian Express, the video-conference could take place over the weekend. Among SAARC nations, India has so far recorded 82 cases followed by Pakistan (20), Maldives (8), Afghanistan (7), Bangladesh (3), Sri Lanka (2), and Nepal and Bhutan (1 each).
Over the last five years, India appeared to have virtually abandoned the SAARC process on the issue of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, and diplomats of at least three countries in the grouping told The Indian Express that the latest move has come as a “pleasant surprise”. They said they were looking forward to cooperating on the issue.
Response is key
With the coronavirus looming large, India’s perceived U-turn on its engagement with SAARC has opened a new window for cooperation. But how the eight-member grouping responds will be the real test — for the public health crisis and diplomacy in the region.
On Friday, Modi tweeted: “Our planet is battling the COVID-19 Novel Coronavirus. At various levels, governments and people are trying their best to combat it. South Asia, which is home to a significant number of the global population, should leave no stone unturned to ensure our people are healthy.”
He wrote: “I would like to propose that the leadership of SAARC nations chalk out a strong strategy to fight Coronavirus. We could discuss, via video conferencing, ways to keep our citizens healthy. Together, we can set an example to the world, and contribute to a healthier planet.”
Within hours of the Prime Minister’s tweet, leaders from Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, the Maldives, Afghanistan and Bangladesh welcomed the initiative. However, Pakistan was yet to respond.
Sources said that while the spread of the virus has been relatively subdued in SAARC countries, India did not want to take any chances. It has suspended bus and train services to Bangladesh, but the Kartarpur corridor to Pakistan remains open.
India had abandoned the SAARC as a concept after the terror attacks in Pathankot and Uri in 2016, and — along with others like Afghanistan and Bangladesh – boycotted the summit in Pakistan in 2016. This led to all movement being stalled on the SAARC dialogue process in the last three-and-a-half years.
India has always maintained that Pakistan’s support for terrorist activities in the region has led to a situation that is not conducive to holding the SAARC summit, and pushed the BIMSTEC grouping to marginalise Pakistan in the region.
Sporadic attempts by Nepal to revive the process had been stonewalled by India, with India and Pakistan refusing to engage with each other at the SAARC foreign ministers’ meeting in the last two years.
However, officials pointed to the prompt and positive response by four leaders in the region to Modi’s call as a “positive sign”.
Thanking Modi for the “great initiative”, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa tweeted that his country “is ready to join the discussion & share our learnings & best practices and to learn” from other SAARC members. “Let’s unite in solidarity during these trying times and keep our citizens safe,” he wrote.
Nepal Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli welcomed the idea of “chalking out a strong strategy by the leadership of the SAARC nations” and said his government “is ready to work closely with SAARC Member States to protect our citizens from this deadly disease”.
Bhutan Prime Minister Lotay Tshering gave a ringing endorsement to the Indian leadership. “This is what we call leadership. As members of this region, we must come together in such times. Smaller economies are hit harder, so we must coordinate. With your leadership, I have no doubt we will see immediate and impactful outcome. Looking forward to the video conference,” he tweeted.
Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih supported the effort. Thanking Modi for “the initiative on this important endeavor”, he said it “requires collective effort to defeat” the virus.
Bangladesh junior Foreign minister Shahriar Alam said Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina “welcomes the proposal” and looks forward “to a constructive dialogue” with heads of governments and states “who already consented to discuss the way forward at this testing time for the region and the world”.
Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani’s spokesperson Sediq Sediqqi said his government “strongly welcomes the proposal” and “readiness of the other SAARC members to work together devising a unified strategy to fight the coronavirus in the region”.
Reacting to Modi’s tweet, the SAARC Secretariat tweeted that it “welcomes the timely proposal…as well as the support of other SAARC leaders and stands ready to work with all Member States towards a strong strategy to fight the coronavirus” in the region.
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