SAARC Yatra: A Win-Win Situation for India and the Region


G Padmaja highlights the importance of the SAARC Yatra undertaken by Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar

Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar began his SAARC Yatra on March 1 with a visit to Bhutan, followed by Bangladesh and Pakistan. He concluded the first phase of the yatra with a visit to Afghanistan on March 4. The schedule of visits to the other South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries has not yet been worked out, but that too should happen soon.

It all began as cricket diplomacy on February 13 when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called up and wished the Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif, the President of Sri Lanka Maithripala Sirisena and the President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani the very best for their teams, a day ahead of the beginning of the ICC World Cup Cricket 2015. During Modi’s conversation with them, he indicated the Indian foreign secretary’s visit to SAARC countries to discuss the bloc’s initiatives, which India had proposed at the 18th SAARC Summit. Jaishankar’s SAARC yatra is one concrete step forward in that direction.

Reinforcing Neighbours First

The SAARC yatra once again very rightly emphasises the importance of the immediate neighbourhood in the Modi government’s foreign policy. The government’s mechanism of addressing all SAARC countries together, be it in May 2014 when regional leaders were invited to Modi’s swearing-in ceremony, or recently, when the foreign secretary undertook the SAARC yatra, brings out five specific undercurrents.

First, a realisation that not only India’s politico-socio-economic stability, but also the credibility of the global role it proposes to play will be influenced by the nature of relations with its immediate neighbourhood. Thus, a constructive bilateral and regional agenda with the immediate neighbourhood on one hand, and a meaningful global role on the other, are critically connected. The former forms the base for the latter.

Second, the need to optimise the use of both bilateral and regional mechanisms as and when required to arrive at a process where engagement is a continuous exercise. Thus, existing institutional structures both regional and bilateral need to be activated and utilised effectively. Third, is to conduct this continuous process of engagement at multiple levels, from the highest political leadership to diplomatic officials. Fourth, while there are no permanent friends or enemies, the permanence of geo-strategic interests necessitates that relations are afloat at all times, despite differences. Thus, there is a need to create constructive interdependencies among SAARC countries. When these may sometimes take time to implement, unilateral initiatives from India expressing its intent to cooperate should be pursued aggressively.

Since he took office, Prime Minister Modi has left his footprints in two SAARC countries, with Bhutan being the destination of his first bilateral foreign visit. The other country was Nepal where the last bilateral standalone prime ministerial visit before Modi was undertaken 17 years earlier. Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka in March was one wherein the Indian prime minister undertook a visit after 25 years. His visits to other SAARC countries should follow soon. Meanwhile, the Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has already paid visits to five SAARC countries. The foreign secretary’s SAARC yatra is one more effort to reverse the trend of long bilateral silence at the very highest level in the region. India cannot expect the neighbourhood to respond positively at the choosing of its time, when it decides to make that high level bilateral visit and assume that a change will be made and all has been done. Continuity is the key word.

Bilateral Focus in a Multilateral Agenda

The dominant narrative is that the SAARC yatra was actually undertaken to restart the India-Pakistan bilateral dialogue, which was called off in August last year after Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit decided to meet leaders of the separatist Hurriyat, days ahead of the talks. This narrative argues that in the name of a multilateral agenda, India is actually talking to Pakistan because of pressure to restart the dialogue from the US. Also, the next SAARC summit, whenever it happens, will be hosted by Pakistan. India will not be able to back off from attending that summit, given the importance it attaches to the region and the association. If it does, its commitment will be doubted and all efforts will be wasted. The SAARC yatra will prevent such an eventuality and give India the diplomatic space to pursue a regional SAARC agenda in a scenario where the bilateral agenda faces roadblocks for various reasons.

Regional Cooperation Occupies Dominant Space

The official stand is that the SAARC yatra is to re-emphasise India’s serious engagement with SAARC. The intent is to pursue the various initiatives which were proposed by Prime Minister Modi at the 18th SAARC Summit in Kathmandu, including a SAARC satellite that provides utility to all South Asian nations, partnership between South Asian University and one university each in various countries, medical visas for patients from SAARC along with their companions, vaccines for children in South Asia, SAARC business traveller’s card and many other initiatives.

If the dominant narrative is true, it is a constructive sign that the regional platform is being effectively used to pursue a bilateral dialogue, which when stalled did convey a message and had served its purpose. Not having a bilateral dialogue with any of the SAARC countries cannot be a long term policy option. If the official version is true, then again it is a constructive sign that the agenda of regional cooperation has come to occupy dominant space. Either way, it is a win-win situation for India and the region.

These one-day visits will need to take stock of the progress made in the bilateral agenda and chalk out a clear roadmap to implement India’s unilateral initiatives spelt out at the Kathmandu Summit. Like Aristotle said, “Wishing to be friends is quick work, but friendship is a slow ripening fruit.”

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