Undeclared capital of Saarc

From The Kathmandu Post (07 November 2014)

Kathmandu is uniquely situated to help define regionalism in South Asia, but we need to focus

The Saarc organisation is itself a bit like its 18th Summit happening in Kathmandu in a couple of weeks—outside everyone’s attention until we are forced to pay heed. Not really anyone’s priority until the momentary deluge of media attention as the eight heads of government come together on the podium.

The host country, if politically disorganised, tends to be found napping until the last moment, and then comes the splurge of spending to put up a slapdash welcome with paint and buntings. This is also true of Kathmandu, as we speak the preparations at last-minute also because attention has been constantly diverted by domestic political uncertainties.

Another explanation for the rushed preparations has to do with the fact that the Summit had seemed uncertain due to the internal struggle in Afghanistan for presidency, which was not sorted out until late September. In the end, it was Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s oft-repeated reference to ‘visiting Kathmandu again’ after his state visit of early August that helped generate confidence about the Summit actually being held as scheduled on November 26-27.


South Asian hub

History and geography makes Nepal the most attractive Saarc and South Asian venue. The Valley’s geographical positioning, close to most of the regional capitals, and its easy modern-day cosmopolitanism, make it the undeclared capital of South Asia, regarded by one and all as the most ‘neutral’ in the Subcontinent.

This is a diverse, cacophonous Valley where Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Burmese, and all other South Asians (except Afghans) can enter with visa-on-arrival. (For the sake of Saarc sociability, the Foreign Ministry should convince the Home Ministry to allow visa-on-arrival for Afghanistan as well.)

The open border between Nepal and India provides the goal for frontiers all over, to reflect better the historical evolution of South Asia as a region not only of demographic diversity but inter-connectivity. Having itself gone through a violent conflict and a drawn-out transition, Nepali society has hopefully gained maturity and the ability to introspect, which allows us to develop empathy for the other embattled societies of South Asia.

But for all its possibilities, Kathmandu has not been able to value-add to the Saarc organisation, because the national intelligentsia is not cerebrally active on regionalism, even as the political class has been politically preoccupied for two decades running. The Valley needs to seek to be something more than the seminar-centre of the Subcontinent, merely the logistical facilitator. It must strive to provide substantive input for the development of South Asian regionalism, by strengthening its academic base (particularly in economics and political science) and adding proper infrastructure and improving the service sector.

While that is the goal, the sad reality is that, over the last decade, the national intelligentsia has become more introverted and less aware of the region of which Nepal is a part. The geopolitical sanding down of Nepal’s foreign policy has relegated South Asian studies to be something pursued by others.


The second coming

Under Saarc protocol, it is the host country that sets the theme for a summit, and much of what happens or does not depends upon the dynamism of the foreign ministry in question. The fact that the new Secretary General of Saarc is also from Nepal should make it possible for Kathmandu to do an even better job in terms of goal-setting and coordination.

However, it is also true that the Saarc organisation, stodgy from head to toe, provides few opportunities for innovative departures. Saarc is the child of grudging South Asian geopolitics, with diplomats held back by politicians who themselves are tied down by ultra-nationalist populism.

Saarc summits of the past have mostly been like oversized development seminars, pre-scripted and lacking in spark and originality. In Nepal too, the authorities go about organising summits in rote manner, selecting venue, ensuring security, getting a fleet of limousines, laying on tarmac and putting up streetlamps, and selecting least common denominator phraseology for the final declaration.

It is high time to plan for the second coming of Saarc, to make it a vibrant organisation worthy of the people of the Subcontinent, and Kathmandu is ideally placed for the kickoff. Once we are engaged intellectually with the idea of regionalism, then it is time to take up the agenda of improving Saarc.

There is no use for readymade cynicism regarding Saarc, because the organisation is what it is because of the fears and animosities of our newborn nation-states. Saarc represents a modest concession from the member governments, a nod to regionalism in a part of Asia where exclusionary, xenophobic ultra-nationalism is still the rule. We have to be happy with this nod, even if the Saarc Secretariat itself is kept on a short leash by eight foreign ministries, not allowed to take initiatives, under-staffed and under-funded.

This is where Nepal can play a role as the oldest nation-state of South Asia by far, one which should be better able to talk regionalism. The 18th Summit could be the point from where on Saarc is re-energised.


Divergent formulae

The first thing to do would be to give Saarc more flexibility to function by abandoning the consensus rule. No member state will agree to Saarc becoming the venue for resolving bilateral contestations, but the Secretariat could be given the authority to experiment with various formats of cooperation beyond the eight-country-consensus stricture.

At the very outset, in talking South Asian regionalism, we need figure out a way to deal with the asymmetry relating to the reality of the size of humongous India. We must also find a way to rationalise the extreme in the population size of membership (345,000 to 1.2 billion), a situation quite different from other regional groupings such as the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) or the European Union.

It is disconcerting that the ‘Saarc format’ of regionalism is being copied in academia as well—many of the South Asia institutes and departments in universities are emerging as merely collections of country studies brought under one roof. South Asia must be studied as a unitary unit, which would be much more than the sum of the parts.

We need to eject the lock-hold of belief within Saarc that any ‘South Asian’ activity must engage all eight member countries. This makes work very difficult, given the diversity of interests and priorities in the Subcontinent, and so the need for a mental shift to define any activity as ‘South Asian’ if it involves collaboration between two or more countries. Saarc should promote, rather than deny, sub-regional cross-border activities.

We need a Saarc formula that allows a sovereign nation-state such as Nepal to connect directly with a neighbouring state entity such as Bihar or a distant province such as Sindh. Meanwhile, Sindh should be able to interact with Assam without any loss of sovereignty of the parent countries.

There are thousands of other themes and areas which would benefit from a truly South Asian approach. The ‘Asian brown cloud’ which hovers over all of us, the monsoon, river pollution, the law of the sea, the status of Antarctica, refugees, internal displacement, urbanisation, and the emerging megacities—engagement at the regional level will help all the people of South Asia.

Saarc and South Asia

Proceeding towards genuine regionalism, we should also realise the need to draw a distinction between ‘Saarc’ and ‘South Asia’, often used synonymously. ‘Saarc’ is an inter-governmental entity with a necessarily restricted ambit. ‘South Asia’ is owned by all the people without restriction, and the civil society (academia, NGOs, cooperatives, people’s campaigns, trade unions, etc) is free to explore where the governments may fear to tread.

We have spent several decades seeking to promote regionalism in the Subcontinent by talking of the shared history and culture, the fact that we are all more alike than different. But this has not helped usher peace, nor delivered a peace-dividend. It seems that what is required for South Asian peace is the expansion of trade and commerce, and an economic binding that comes through roads, railways, transmission lines, and customs rationalisation. There is a need to multiply economic stakeholders in each country so that they will back the efforts at peace.

We need to make South Asia real, and Saarc fashionable. If Kathmandu wakes up to its placement and promise, it will do all of South Asia a whole lot of good.

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