Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s engagement with the leaders of South Asian nations on collectively combating the coronavirus on Sunday marks a long-overdue course correction in Delhi’s regional diplomacy. After the deadly terror attack on the Indian security forces at Uri in 2016, India refused to engage with the SAARC — the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation that brings the region’s eight nations together. While smaller countries in the region acknowledged Delhi’s deepening concerns on cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan, they were also despondent that the main forum for regional cooperation in South Asia had moved from a state of dysfunction to deep coma. Many of them were willing to work with India in alternative forums like the BIMSTEC, centred around the Bay of Bengal, but were not prepared to abandon the SAARC.
No wonder, then, that leaders of smaller countries responded with alacrity to PM Modi’s invitation to confer at short notice on the mounting challenge of coping with the coronavirus. They were one with Delhi in recognising that the problems posed by the coronavirus can’t be addressed only at the national level and that a joint regional effort was needed. At the same time, the conversation among the leaders also highlighted the unique national problems that the countries confronted. For example, the Maldives and Sri Lanka highlighted the massive economic impact of the dramatic decline of tourism that is a major source of revenue and employment. As an archipelagic nation, the Maldives has the challenge of delivering assistance to patients in remote islands. Land-locked Afghanistan is struggling to cope with the open border with virus-infected Iran and Pakistan’s decision to close the border through which much of the nation’s trade flows occur. PM Modi’s proposals for an emergency relief fund to deal with the crisis, sharing India’s capabilities with the neighbours and developing a new regional research platform, were received well. Many leaders had their own proposals. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina offered to establish a new regional institution to deal with public health challenges in Dhaka. The leaders agreed to take this conversation forward at the official level in the coming days.
If the video conference highlighted the urgent need for a regional approach to the coronavirus crisis as well as the possibilities for it, it also highlighted the familiar difficulties of getting there. Prime Minister Imran Khan chose to duck the meeting and sent his adviser on health, Zafar Mirza, who appeared to be under instructions to inject the Kashmir question into the discussion. Delhi, however, would be wise not to be deterred by Pakistan’s predictable approach. Having ended its recent neglect of South Asian regionalism, Delhi should stay focused on advancing cooperation with neighbours on denting the impact of the coronavirus crisis. As it builds on the positive responses from most of the neighbours, Delhi must hope that Islamabad will not block progress on the collective effort through the SAARC, for Pakistan needs as much support as it can get to deal with the gathering crisis at home.
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