In a cul-de-sac

The 16th summit of the leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (Saarc) which concluded in Thimphu in Bhutan was an occasion for stocktaking. Some of the leaders did look at the performance of the regional grouping and said that it could have achieved more. It is known that in the 25 years of its existence Saarc has not realised its potential. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh diplomatically said it is a glass half full, Bhutan Prime Minister Jigme Thinley felt it was losing its focus and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina regretted the lack of progress in important areas. It was stated at the end of the conference that the summit achieved its agenda of regional co-operation with the signing of two documents on trade and environment. Manmohan Singh was again correct when he said that though institutions were created, they were not empowered.

The main reason for the lack of progress is the strained relations between India and Pakistan, the two biggest members, and to some extent the absence of the best of relations between India and some other countries. Though bilateral issues are not to be raised in any Saarc fora, the organisation has always been a hostage to India-Pakistan problems. Normally members of such organisation benefit doubly from a logic of complementarity -- regional co-operation aids bilateral ties and improved bilateral ties further boost overall relations.  But this has not happened in the case of Saarc. There have been Initiatives like a regional free trade agreement, a regional development fund and a  South Asian university. Even a common currency was talked about. But none of the ideas and projects has really taken off.

The very fact that the outcome of the Thimphu summit was overshadowed by the meeting on the margins between Indian and Pakistani leaders was itself proof of the weakness of the organisation.  India and Pakistan have the greatest responsibility to turn things around for the body, by keeping their bilateral problems off the Saarc table, though this is easier said than done. It should be easy to achieve better economic integration and improve people-to-people contacts among Saarc countries, who have more in common than members of any other regional grouping in the world. But the possibility continues to remain unrealised. 

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