The rationalism of regionalism

From Turning Points (2016)

Bangladesh and its people perhaps own SAARC’s concept and organisation more than the other societies of Southasia. The idea of regional cooperation, originally taking seed in such post-1971 initiatives as the Shimla agreement between India and Pakistan in 1972 and the tripartite agreement between Bangladesh, India and Pakistan in April 1974, was formally mooted in 1980 by Bangladesh’s President Ziaur Rahman, who got the other presidents, prime ministers and kings of the region to agree, some of them reluctantly. But three decades after the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation was inaugurated in 1985 in Dhaka, the organisation is yet to be able to promote regional cooperation, and we have reduced all these years to saying, “At least it’s a start, at least it shows the ‘buy in’ by the rulers.” Alternatively, you could say that SAARC has been deliberately propped up by the individual national establishments to actually ensure that a regional mechanism more effective and efficient does not emerge.

SAARC is thus more or less moribund, locked in with a miniscule budget and a consensus rule between eight foreign ministries that gives you something lower than the lowest common denominator in terms of activities and initiatives. Meanwhile, other formulae for Southasian regionalism have not been explored, with scholars studiously skirting the subject of Southasian regionalism.

The one and only goal for Southasian regionalism should be social justice – a peace dividend arising from softer borders, economies of scale, lowered military spending, reduced ultra-nationalism and strengthening of grassroots democracy leading to this region, which houses nearly a fourth of the world’s population, realising its genius. However, Southasian civil society in all parts has not been able to energise the ‘movement for Southasia’ beyond preaching to the converted, which is also because academics have tended to shun regionalism in southern Asia as an area of research.

Aggressive nationalism

New nation-states necessarily develop aggressive nationalisms, as a way for the new capital establishments to develop and maintain control of the larger polities. All the nation-states of Southasia are new entities between seven and four decades old, barring Nepal whose nation-state existence goes back two and a half centuries. But all the countries, including Nepal, have spent the second half of the 20th and thus far of the 21st centuries burnishing the patriotism banner. Such metropolitan centres as Calcutta, Karachi and Mumbai have lost out to New Delhi and Islamabad. Meanwhile, each of the other capitals had their own specific wants and needs vis-à-vis New Delhi, and this meant that the rationalism of regionalism, especially as a social justice project, has not made it into the mainstream discourse. Some of this discourse did occur in rarified English, but it was the ‘vernaculars’ that needed to buy into Southasian regionalism and give it political momentum. Except perhaps in Nepal and Bangladesh, the ‘language media’ has got caught in an exclusivist ghetto where ultra-nationalism rules. The India-Pakistan animosity, nurtured by the bureaucracy-military establishments of both countries (and not just Pakistan as is widely circulated) has, meanwhile, consistently overshadowed attempts to jump-start Southasian regionalism. The mild cautionary voices of the other member countries of SAARC are not enough to overcome the snarling between New Delhi and Islamabad.

A social justice project

The Southasian regionalism project would promote cooperation not only between the nation-states – its ethos seeks to excite connections also between the smaller entities of Southasia – links between sovereign nation-states, Pakistani provinces and Indian states. The goal of regionalism is not to create a subcontinental superpower, but to empower the people of Southasia through federal devolution and local government. The philosophical base of Southasian regionalism stems actually from the values of grassroots democracy.

There are versions of Southasianism that should have been explored, but because of a lack of academic innovation we remain locked within one definition, the SAARC formula of eight foreign ministries trying to act (unsuccessfully) in concert. This statist formula denies the possibility of bringing up bilateral issues, and given the need to have the nod from eight directions is it any wonder that ideas fail to take wing under the SAARC canopy? The statist conception also denies the diversity of historical cultures and continuing experiences of a region, which should have many and cross-cutting conceptions.

SAARC may actually have made people give up on Southasia, given the low level of commitment it requires, just a mouthing. Take the example of Southasian migrant labour working in the Gulf, all of whom would benefit in terms of job security and social security if the sending countries were to put up a unified front. After a great deal of effort, the 18th SAARC summit in Kathmandu did manage to include Article 17 in its declaration calling for such cooperation, agreeing to “collaborate and cooperate … to ensure safety, security and wellbeing of their migrant workers in the destination countries outside the region.” But this is as far as the idea is likely to go given SAARC inertia. And so, the lowest in the totem pole of Gulf migrant labour will continue to be exploited more than others, viz. Bangladeshis, Nepalis, and India’s Biharis and Uttar Pradeshis.

There are numerous challenges to be overcome before regionalism becomes real enough to serve as a social justice project. A key reason, as mentioned, is that Southasia has thus far been formatted under SAARC, the latter used as a synonym for the former term. Another key reason that regionalism has failed to spark is that India, as the largest country in terms of size and diversity of economy, geography and population, is at the very centre of the region. This India, too, is a young entity where nationalist jingoism has pride of place, where the Pakistan factor has given birth to relentless, low-burn paranoia, where internal polarisation has created a ‘national security state’, and the military defeat with China in 1962 has created a fear regarding the entire Himalayan rim that has long been outdated. As a large country with a national establishment that has a ‘small-country mindset’, India’s foreign policy discourse among think tanks and media is mostly as directed by the Ministry of External Affairs in South Block. Coverage of Southasian neighbours also is locked into the MEA version of trends and events, which means that the Indian public is made to observe neighbours as well as the concept of Southasian regionalism through the prism of the national security state.

Southasia would be a reality if India alone became truly federal, which would allow the many ‘nations’ within as represented (howsoever clumsily) in the existing states of the Union more leeway in interacting with each other, with the sovereign Southasian neighbours as well as the rest of the world. Pakistan would have to follow suit with its provinces. This evolution towards federalism has not occurred in India, even with the rise of regional parties from Bihar to West Bengal to Tamil Nadu. And so the grip of the national capitals has if anything become tighter, for a Sindh which may want to engage directly with Rajasthan, or the Indian Northeast with the port in Chittagong.

On the other side of the Bangladesh-India divide, a Border Security Force (BSF) soldier is on duty at Gede.
© Mostafigur Rahman

The prototype border

The Southasian half-century has, overall, turned out to be a dud. We need today, very late in the day, an effective trigger to release the possibilities of Southasia. The ‘bhai-bhai’ narrative of shared history and culture has failed to bring national societies together. Having the same language (Bangla) and holding in reverence the same personages (Tagore, Nazrul) apparently is not enough for West Bengal and Bangladesh to want to do more with each other.

For some time, one hoped that the Southasian rapproachment would start with Punjab-Punjab. One, the most powerful province of Pakistan providing its political and military top brass, and the other the vital state of India with the self-confidence and clout to push through a new agenda to modulate the directives of the Centre. But perhaps the two Punjabs are too much in bed with Islamabad and New Delhi and hence the hope that a loosening would start at Wagah-Attari and wash up at other border points was not fulfilled. Certainly, the south of India would not object to attempts at ratcheting down New Delhi’s ultra-nationalism or develop more give in India’s policy on the matter of Kashmir, but the Indian South does not seem to mind letting the xenophobes of the Ganga belt define regional relationships.

A role model border of Southasia already exists, that between India and Nepal, across a historically evolved frontier, where the market bazaars are dirty and raucous – just the ideal or prototypical border point of Southasia. The day Wagah-Atari looks less like a sanitised airport terminal and more like Sunauli-Bhairahawa bazaar is when Southasian regionalism gets real.

However, after long years of waiting we have seen that neither the Punjab-Punjab bonhomie nor the Nepal-India open border will be a catalyst for the rest of Southasia. For a while one had hoped that Bangladesh with its history of promoting SAARC would lead diplomatically in the definition of the Southasian roadmap and milestones. But Dhaka too seems engrossed with its own problems and managing the one-on-one relationship with India.

One would have hoped that academia would come to the rescue of the Southasia idea(s), giving girth to the concept and providing courage to the civil society stalwarts and politicians to think out of the nationalist box. However, scholarship has been reluctant to tackle the geopolitics and economics of Southasia even as each country has sought to fashion its own history. Without scholars to take the lead, the media has had no one to follow than the foreign office bureaucrats.

Connectivity, not a cliché

For three decades, in trying to make Southasia ‘happen’, we harped on shared culture and history. But even having the same language, music, being affected by crossborder environmental decline, diseases crossing borders without ‘visas’, watching the same Bollywood productions, and everyone being able to own the Taj Mahal and the Lahore Fort alike as common heritage – we remain incapable of correcting the nationalist drift of Southasia through cooperation. Enjoying Salman Khan on the screen does not seem to make us more Southasian (or ‘Indic’) and less Pakistani or Bangladeshi or Nepali. The formula for Southasia lies somewhere else, and the word is connectivity, which must be urgently rescued from the danger of being converted into a cliché.

Only crossborder economic and infrastructural connectivity – telecom, customs, trade, commerce, roads, air links, railways, internet – will have the power to prise open the grip of ultra-nationalism over Southasia. We need the rise of a class of commercial stakeholders that will force the opening up of borders, liberalisation of visa regimes between the nearly-identical citizenries, and the flowering of people-to-people links. Nationalist exclusivism has been a drag on the livelihoods of 1.6 billion people. If only the economists would pay attention to regionalism!

The attempts to develop Southasia-wide crossborder links of infrastructure, including transmission lines, customs, roads agreements and air links and so on, have yet to succeed. These will necessarily have to start as bilateral deals, mostly with the powerful Indian economy located centrally in the subcontinent. The Southasia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) cannot kick in before the ground has been prepared through bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs), such as the one between Sri Lanka and India.

The New Delhi-Colombo FTA shows what can happen with investment flows, ease of business, a raise threshold for bilateral tension-producing events, and multiplication of air links. There are today a horde of daily flights between Colombo and New Delhi, Bombay, Tiruvanthapuram, Chennai, Goa and Bangalore. Bangladesh and India seem to be moving along the same path, with an FTA and the purchase of 1000 MW of electricity from India, which required an overcoming of nationalist barriers in Dhaka.

Bilateral deals can lead to multilateral agreements, and this can be seen in the BBIN initiative on road transport connectivity between Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal. Piecemeal approaches may finally lead to success in regionalism in Southasia as a whole, and initiatives based on the platform of developing economic links have the opportunity of triggering success. In this manner, only the power of stakeholders in the business community can make Southasian regionalism happen in a manner that the people as a whole will benefit. Once the wedge has been placed at the door, we may expect academia to at long last pay attention to the need to add texture to the definition and study of Southasian regionalism.

Talking of connectivity and economic stakeholders, Southasian regionalism may actually arrive quicker with the rapprochement between the US and Iran. This could mean that the objections to the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline to feed the energy needs of India (and Pakistan in transit) will mean a buildup of myriad downstream linkages between India and Pakistan. That may be when Southasian regionalism really takes off, fueled by natural gas from the Gulf, with the possibility of lowering the heat between New Delhi and Islamabad. Whatever promotes economic integration is welcome, for it will lead to cultural connectivity. We have waited long enough in the modern era.

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