Despite his commitment to greater regional cooperation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have his work cut out for him at the Saarc summit in Kathmandu. Saarc declarations have made considerable progress on a range of issues, from trade and connectivity to ecology. But these declarations only serve to highlight that Saarc has near zero credibility. Can Modi convert a traditionally bureaucratic exercise, at the margins of our political imagination, into an ambitious political gambit with more meaningful outcomes?
There is some hope. The normative discourse on greater connectivity in the region has shifted. There are many projects already on the ground, ranging from grid connectivity with Bangladesh to power agreements with Nepal. These are very modest beginnings. Only in a culture that sets the bar as low as South Asia can these be regarded as progress. They are a far cry from the need to think of South Asia as shared ecological space, a connected energy market, a free-trade area, a zone of freer movement of people, a unified transport area, and more ambitiously, a zone of free, self-confident democracies. Contrary to our traditional fears, greater regional cooperation strengthens individual nations in Saarc rather than weakening them.
Saarc was always hostage to the India-Pakistan relationship: India always feared it being used as a forum for bilateral one-upmanship by our neighbours. This fear has diminished considerably. That is because some of India’s bilaterals have improved, making it harder for all countries to gang up, as it were. There is also the view that regional cooperation can proceed at a different pace with different countries. And finally, at this point, the momentum of India-Pakistan relations has very little to do with India’s actions. Pakistan needs to sort out what kind of national and regional player it wants to become: Indian conduct is, both for the Pakistani military and its Western supporters, largely an alibi for not facing up to its internal problems. Its human costs are high. But the only thing India can do is signal powerfully that there is a new regional imagination taking shape. This imagination has a lot of potential, and Pakistan can join the party if it wants to. The Pakistan factor is more reason to strengthen Saarc, not weaken it.
But there are serious obstacles. Regional institutions seldom overcome the pathologies of the bureaucracies of individual states. The importance of the credibility gap cannot be overestimated. Saarc would initiate a healthy precedent if, instead of making a lot of new pronouncements for the future, it began with an honest report card on how much delivery has fallen short of declarations. You can judge how serious an organisation is not by the scale of its promises, but whether it has an effective monitoring mechanism for implementation. The already agreed to Saarc roadmap for a transition from the Safta to a customs union would warm anyone’s heart; the pace of implementation would drive anyone to despair. Even projects that have got off the ground, like the Saarc University, invite more scepticism than admiration. And Saarc institutions are pathetic both in capacity and in prestige.
India has to shoulder some of the blame. It is a tall order to expect India to do well in the region what it does only in fits and starts at home: build top-class infrastructure. But whether we like it or not, infrastructure is the most potent tool of security, connectivity and diplomacy. India is not even off the starting block on this. We have rejected many infrastructure projects offered to us. Our execution does not command respect. It is also an open question whether the scale of financially viable projects is enough to add up to an infrastructure revolution in the region that has real political bite. But infrastructure is the backbone of regional cooperation. Right now, Saarc is a project without a backbone. The truth is that unless India shows exemplary execution capabilities in this area, the esteem it commands will be limited. And much of our neighbours’ interest in us will depend on how well our economy does in the next decade.
Politicians in the region tend to be risk averse. In private, their normative and intellectual commitments are all for greater cooperation. In public, they face three obstacles. In some of the smaller countries, they fear being outflanked by their rivals, who are all too ready to use an anti-India card. Our neighbours are not alarmed by trade deficits with China, but the slightest spectre of a trade deficit with India is a political issue. These fears are exaggerated. But they have palpable effects.
Much of the discourse of regional cooperation is couched in very abstract terms and speaks of aggregate benefits to the countries involved. But aggregate benefits are seldom strong enough to override the opposition of entrenched interest groups which fear immediate distributive consequences. Moreover, the local communities where projects are going to be sited are often given little stake in them. Quite the contrary: they often fear that they will be used merely as way stations to seemingly lofty goals, without benefits flowing to them. None of these are insurmountable obstacles. But the form of local political advocacy needed to get projects off the ground still does not exist to a sufficient degree.
Finally, the domestic political cycles for many of our neighbours have to be taken into account. Nepal still has a political stalemate of sorts. Bangladesh is doing well, but the window of opportunity before the legitimacy crisis for the current government enlarges is small. Sri Lanka now has a cussedness about regional cooperation, largely buttressed by the view that China can sustain it. And it is unclear what compromises the new government in Afghanistan will make and what this entails for India. But the lesson is this: whenever there is a small window of opportunity, it is important to make maximum use of it, to deliver and execute projects that can endure the surface movements of politics. For example, coming good on all our commitments to Bangladesh is of such vital importance because if this moment is not used, the consequences will be serious.
Modi has a political opportunity. He can put an unprecedented political imprimatur on a usually moribund summit. It is a chance to boldly sketch what a new regional imagination, one that is vibrant and meaningful yet reassuring to all our neighbours, would look like. In many ways, this project is far more consequential, even for the future of secularism in the region, than we usually recognise. But he will also have to work hard to overcome the scepticism that big dreams usually incite in South Asia.