Monday, Feb 06, 2023

States and the Saarc

Modi must ensure India does not lose the opportunity to advance regionalism in the eastern subcontinent, and between it and East Asia

Modi’s proposition also came at a time when the UPA government seemed to cede a veto to states in the conduct of foreign policy towards the neighbours. (Illustration by Pradeep Yadav) Modi’s proposition also came at a time when the UPA government seemed to cede a veto to states in the conduct of foreign policy towards the neighbours. (Illustration by Pradeep Yadav)

Pakistan’s ambivalence towards economic integration and the minimal gains from the South Asian summit in Kathmandu this week need not necessarily be a setback to India’s agenda for regionalism. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc), the region should move forward with all Saarc members if possible, or some of them, if necessary. “The bonds will grow. Through Saarc or outside it. Among us all or some of us,” he declared.

Pakistan, New Delhi must recognise, will only move at a pace that its political class and the army are comfortable with. The rest of the region, however, can move ahead at a faster pace. Pakistan has borders with only India and Afghanistan. India, in contrast, has frontiers with all member states of South Asia except Afghanistan. Modi said in Kathmandu that India’s size and location demand Delhi’s leadership in exploring all possible routes to economic integration.

The Saarc charter allows two or more member states to work out agreements for “subregional cooperation”. China, Japan and the United States, three important observer states, want to actively promote “transregional” cooperation involving members of the Saarc and neighbouring regions such as East Asia and Central Asia. In any case, if India signs bilateral agreements with its neighbours on connectivity and offers overland transit to all of them, a large part of the subcontinent will automatically get integrated.

Pakistan is not alone in holding up regional cooperation. India’s own domestic politics and the security establishment’s conservatism have often undermined the possibilities for regional cooperation. Opposition from West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, for example, has prevented the advancement of India’s engagement with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, respectively. While Modi said all the right things about regionalism in Kathmandu, the big question is whether he can convince the leaders of India’s border regions to back his ambitious plans for regionalism.

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Through the election campaign and since, Modi has talked of “cooperative federalism” and making states partners in promoting economic development. He also argued, somewhat counter-intuitively, that states should be given a role in the nation’s international relations. After all, foreign policy and national security are the exclusive prerogatives of the Central government.

Modi’s proposition also came at a time when the UPA government seemed to cede a veto to states in the conduct of foreign policy towards the neighbours. Its kowtowing to Chennai led to a significant deterioration in India’s relations with Sri Lanka. Delhi yielded to pressures from West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and held back from signing the accord on the Teesta waters and implementing the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) with Dhaka.

If the UPA’s weakness meant appeasing regional satraps at the cost of national interest, Modi is calling for a different approach that makes India’s border provinces stakeholders in the deepening regional integration in South Asia. He is coming to Saarc from the perspective of domestic economic development. He also brings a measure of political sensitivity to the extraordinary costs imposed on the people of India’s borderlands by the subcontinent’s Partition and the socialist isolationism of the past.


Modi now sees transborder road and rail links, electricity grids and tourist circuits as critical not just to the prosperity of India’s border regions, but to the subcontinent as a whole. India’s diminished connectivity with its neighbours over the last seven decades has prevented it from partaking of the dynamic economic growth of Asia in general and China in particular. In the west, it has limited India’s options of overland import of natural resources like oil and natural gas, and export of Indian goods to the interior regions of Asia.

Not all border states, however, are hostile to the prospect of greater economic cooperation with the neighbours. If West Bengal and Tamil Nadu point to the negative side of the equation, many others have been enthusiastic proponents of regionalism. Punjab, for example, has been an active champion of transborder cooperation. The bipartisan sentiment in Amritsar has been marked by the active pursuit of an opening to Lahore under the Congress government led by Amarinder Singh and the Akali Dal governments led by the Badals. This sentiment has been reciprocated by civilian leaders and commercial classes in Lahore.

The problem here has been the apparent resistance of the Pakistan army to let transborder cooperation in the Punjabs take place. It was not an accident that Modi referred to the current situation in Punjab, where the two sides have to send goods on circuitous sea routes rather than move them easily across the border.


Sikkim has long been an active champion of deeper economic cooperation with Tibet in China. But it is Delhi’s security establishment that appears to be resisting the case for full-fledged trade across the Sikkim-Tibet border. The northeastern states see connectivity with Southeast Asia as critical to their economic prosperity. While Delhi talks of the Northeast as the gateway to Asia, it has done precious little to improve transport infrastructure within the region over the decades.

India’s greatest opportunity to rapidly advance regionalism is in the eastern subcontinent, and between it and East Asia. When the prime minister travels to the Northeast over the weekend to review the security situation and launch new infrastructure projects, he has an opportunity to explain how the states in the eastern region can be partners in the transformation of the subcontinent.

Modi needs to mobilise broader public opinion in favour of implementing the LBA with Bangladesh, expanding security cooperation with Dhaka and building transborder connectivity between India and its eastern neighbours — Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Pakistan’s positions are likely to remain an obstacle to breakthroughs on transfrontier connectivity in the northwestern marches of the subcontinent. Modi must, however, make sure that India does not squander the strategic opportunity to promote subregional and transregional cooperation in the east.

The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express

First published on: 29-11-2014 at 00:00 IST
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