SAARC: India's Promise and Performance


Prof Dr V Balakista Reddy insists that the greatest challenge facing Narendra Modi led India, a key actor of the bourgeoning Asian Century, is genuinely addressing SAARC concerns and taking neighbours along in the journey towards a greater global destination

Indian diplomacy has the delicate job of neutralising certain neighbourly tendencies which might mar periodic debates of successive SAARC summits. Whenever a SAARC summit is scheduled to be held in one of the capitals of the member countries, it is a routine task of the Indian foreign policy establishment to prevent issues coming to the fore of the regional forum which otherwise prove to be prejudicial to the interests of the region’s pre-eminent power. The geo-political contours of the Indian neighbourhood carry both complementary as well as unsavoury implications for Indian diplomacy. Rather, in the recent history, considering the external pulls and pressures on the neighbouring powers to wean them out of the perceived or actual Indian dominance, Indian strategists are forced to invoke subtle and complex means to ensure a stable regional order. Adequate precautions were included in the SAARC Charter to discourage attempts by one or the other neighbour to drive embarrassing issues into the regional agenda possibly aimed at targeting or cornering India. For instance, that specific clause in the SAARC Charter, which prohibits debates on bilateral issues, was largely incorporated at the behest of India. Yet, in practice, there could be any other diplomatic means which smaller neighbours can collectively invoke either to extract more commitments from India or isolate India on any given issue. Going by erstwhile diplomatic practice, barring some exceptional departures that demanded the specificity of the regional political temper, it can be surmised that certain common patterns of India’s diplomatic responses to SAARC conclaves may be discerned as below:

• Limiting the possible impact of a preceding bilateral rift, mostly Indo-Pak, spilling over in to the SAARC debates;

• Restraining individual or collective attempts by member countries to seek membership of the regional association for countries whose involvement India considers prejudicial to its regional interests and role; and,

• Offering Indian commitments to SAARC which could help dispel the impression of India’s lesser or least interest in matters of regional concern.

A New Spirit of Fraternity

In the run up to the recently held SAARC summit at Kathmandu, the new Indian government had to address all the above major concerns. The newly installed NDA led Modi government infused fresh goodwill and bonhomie by inviting neighbouring states to the inaugural event of the incoming government. Not only by the unprecedented character of this event, but also by the fact that all member states of SAARC had unanimously responded to Delhi’s new political dispensation sent an unfailing message that the new government had top ranked South Asia in its foreign policy agenda. Subsequently, Prime Minister Modi’s official visit in quick succession to the Himalayan states of the SAARC – Bhutan and Nepal – helped reinforce the goodwill message. Unmistakably, a new spirit of fraternity among South Asian neighbours was obvious as the world watched the first diplomatic moves of the Modi regime. Yet, the challenge ahead of the new regime was to translate its initial goodwill into tangible out comes at the SAARC summit in Nepal.

Indo-Pak Rivalry: Casting a Shadow

Prior to the summit, the issue of the Pakistan embassy in New Delhi hosting a meeting between the separatist leader of Kashmir with its envoy and the Indian government’s sharp reaction to the incident dented the prevailing spirit of bilateral bonhomie. The Indian government’s suspension of the on-going composite dialogue between the two countries and the subsequent mutual accusations over the killing of each other’s soldiers on the border damaged the fledgling spirit of mutual tolerance and engagement. In short, another challenge before the Modi regime was whether it could prevent the downturn with Pakistan parading into the SAARC forum.

New Delhi could not succeed in this move. But this is not the first time that India found it difficult to chafe its bilateral chemistry with Pakistan from SAARC multilateral debates. So the latest development in the Indo-Pak bilateral rivalry had cast its shadow on the Kathmandu SAARC summit. Reminiscent of the Vajpayee-Nawaz Sharif cold encounter at a previous SAARC summit, which witnessed both prime ministers publicly ignoring each other, was unfortunately evident for all to see at the Kathmandu summit too. Once again, the Indian leadership failed in preventing its damaged relationship with Pakistan, thus impacting the regional multilateral association. SAARC had been a victim of the Indo-Pak disputes as it suffered a similar fate several times in the past. Or rather was it that the New Delhi spirit lost its steam by the time regional leaders gathered in the crisis-ridden Himalayan state?

Counterbalance the Chinese Cause

The second issue that the Indian leadership had to tackle at the last summit was to wean away members of the forum from proposing China’s membership of the South Asian regional association. Previous Indian leaders too had to grapple with this issue on which there is broad, strategic consensus in the Indian political establishment not to allow formal Chinese entry into the regional body. At the 18th SAARC summit too China’s full membership of the SAARC figured prominently. On the eve of the Kathmandu summit, China’s official media campaigned its case seriously quoting the support of several SAARC countries, Nepal the host in particular, to its candidature. Not surprisingly, Beijing’s natural ally Pakistan threw its full diplomatic weight behind the cause when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif articulated the Chinese case on the sidelines of the summit. Reportedly, quite a few endorsed the Chinese cause. The issue thus did cast its shadow in dividing the SAARC forum this time too. Notwithstanding the regional support levels to the Chinese membership of SAARC, it is important to question the grounds of Chinese eligibility for the same.

China has consistently voiced its aspiration to become a full-fledged SAARC member and garnered the support of a majority of member countries over the years. It was evident when the issue of offering SAARC’s observer status to China figured way back in 2003, and all members except India supported Beijing’s candidature. When it refigured at the 2005 Islamabad summit, China managed, possibly with lobbying by its ally and host state Pakistan, to get the unanimous approval of member countries granting it observer status. But it was a diplomatic quid pro as SAARC members in exchange yielded to India’s demand to admit Afghanistan as SAARC’s full-fledged member. In the same vein, Japan, China’s regional rival, was also granted observer status, a subtle balancing act indeed! Over the decades, by doling off liberally its soft power endowments to South Asian countries – easy loans and grants, trade concessions, investments, infrastructure services and military aid – China has succeeded by employing its charming and non-offensive strategy of mobilising regional consensus on its deeper involvement in SAARC affairs culminating in its full membership of the regional body. India stood perhaps as the sole member opposed to the process.

As former Indian foreign secretary Muchkund Dubey records, smaller members of the SAARC “gang up against India for extracting concessions from it or reducing its influence in the region.” As part of their strategy, they made a combined effort to “whittle down and counterbalance India’s legitimate role and influence in SAARC…” Thus, also at the recent summit, they were at this game. Did India succeed in neutralising this effort?

China will continue to push its membership issue at future SAARC summits, and in particular, at the next summit scheduled in Islamabad, possibly with greater regional political support mobilised by its ally Pakistan. Will India be able to counterbalance the efforts of other SAARC countries, in particular the Sino-Pak game plan to nudge the SAARC toward a China-led regional body? This is the major challenge for the current Indian political leadership to wean away those sympathetic to the Chinese cause. Rather, the process appears to be underway going by the Kathmandu experience. Amarnath Ram, a former diplomat and keen observer of the SAARC process, insists that the Indian leadership succeeded in isolating Pakistan on the China issue at the summit.

Addressing Neighbours Concerns

India tried to address the third issue of proposing contributions to the regional body, mentioned above. All other SAARC members are of the common view, and not without reason, that for India, SAARC is not a major foreign policy concern and that in its quest for a larger strategic and economic role and status in Asia and the world at large; India ignores its immediate neighbouring region. This belief is not of a recent origin, but was evident even during the Nehruvian period. India’s immediate neighbours complained of neglect by Nehru whose gaze was more fixed over building Afro-Asian solidarity, a non-aligned world and so on. As each SAARC summit meeting advances, Indian diplomacy engages in proposing some multilateral offers to the regional body, more often to counter the members to seek the same from extra regional powers or to convince them about India’s genuine interest in regional multilateral affairs of common interest. More tellingly, such a view was articulated by Rajiv Sikri, a former senior Indian diplomat who authored a very critical analysis of India’s foreign policy, unusual for a career Indian foreign policy servant. In his Challenge and Strategy, Rethinking India’s Foreign Policy (Sage, 2009), Sikri argues that “India was understandably not enthusiastic about SAARC. It could not openly oppose SAARC, but remained indifferent to it. India has tended to regard SAARC summits mostly as a venue for bilateral diplomacy with Pakistan, or to signal unhappiness with a neighbour.” (p.26)

For all his meaningful display of good neighbourly spirit on his inaugural day, by the time of the Kathmandu summit, the Modi diplomacy seemed to toe the beaten track of the Rajiv Sikri narrative above.

The Indian prime minister announced his country’s willingness to offer space technology to establish a SAARC regional space centre. A splendid idea indeed, but the mood at Kathmandu was not propitious to receive the Indian leader’s offer enthusiastically. Or, was it that India lost interest in pressing for SAARC’s acceptance of an otherwise well-meaning idea. Nevertheless, for their part, SAARC countries cannot ignore the reality of India’s growing global stature as a strategic and economic power, regardless of their day-to-day problems in dealing with the region’s pre-eminent country. They need to reconcile with the country with which their interests are firmly intertwined almost in every sphere.

The greatest challenge facing Narendra Modi led India, a key actor of the bourgeoning Asian Century, is the manner in which it genuinely addresses its neighbours concerns and carries them along its journey towards a greater global destination.

Go to Content Page


Prof Dr V Balakista Reddy

Prof Dr V Balakista Reddy is Co-ordinator, MK Nambyar SAARC Law Centre and Registrar, NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad.

Back to Top

Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.