India’s interests can’t afford to wait any more for an obstinate Pak and a moribund Saarc

Constantino Xavier: India should be thankful, for Pakistan’s strategy of cross-border terrorism has achieved the

impossible: For the first time in 30 years all other neighbouring states are now siding with India on a Saarc issue. This gives New Delhi a window of opportunity to practise what it has been preaching and implement its grand plans for the region. India’s influence in the region, and it’s ability to deter Chinese inroads therein, will hinge on its ability to open its economy to its periphery, deliver on cross-border connectivity, and craft alternative cooperative arrangements with its neighbours.
Following New Delhi’s lead, the governments of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan have also opted out of the Saarc summit scheduled for early November in Islamabad. The Maldives, Sri Lanka and Nepal issued public statements of support for the Indian position, with implicit references to terrorism and a degenerating regional security environment. This has left Pakistan virtually isolated, in stark contrast with the past when these smaller states relied on Islamabad’s support to use Saarc to pressure or gang up against India While the Nepalese government has announced consultations to reschedule the summit, relations between India and Pakistan are expected to deteriorate further. This does not bode well for Saarc’s track record of regional cooperation. With Pakistan out of the picture, India’s informal “Saarc minus one” approach will therefore likely emerge as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s default neighbourhood policy. This strategy is not necessarily bad news for regional integration, as it will raise incentives for New Delhi to explore three alternative paths to foster cooperation across South Asia.First, at the bilateral level, New Delhi will continue to dedicate resources to implement the grand regional connectivity plans that have remained on paper for decades, hostage to Saarc’s consensus principle. This includes investments in Iran’s Chabahar port as a crucial link to Afghanistan, new road and railway links to Nepal and Bangladesh, and a new sea bridge to Sri Lanka. New Delhi must, however, move fast if it wishes to take advantage of an unprecedented alignment of interests with the six other regional capitals: The governments in Kabul, Colombo and Dhaka, in particular, are now all predisposed to greater cooperation with New Delhi and have placed the ball in India’s court to deliver. Beyond its idealist self-image as the region’s benevolent big brother, New Delhi will also have to revive the realist motives of the Gujral doctrine of the 1990s: Any short-term economic concessions to smaller neighbours, for example in the terms of favourable trade conditions, should be seen as lucrative investments in strategic interdependence which enhances Indian influence and leverage in the long term.Second, New Delhi will likely develop new sub-regional initiatives with friendly neighbours on specific issues, or so-called minilaterals. In some cases, such schemes can be implemented via Saarc, which allows for member-states to cooperate separately. New Delhi’s experience in signing a trilateral motor vehicle agreement with Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal, after Pakistan blocked a region-wide proposal, offers a promising model. Similarly, on the Indian Ocean front, New Delhi can also build on the Trilateral Maritime Security Cooperation Initiative with Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Plans for a gas pipeline connecting India, Bangladesh and Myanmar are back on the table as well.
Finally, as an intransigent Pakistan blocks the Western front, Prime Minister’s neighbourhood first policy is expected to gradually shift East, seeking to tie regional cooperation on the subcontinent to Asean’s successful regional integration story in Southeast Asia. For example, instead of seeking to persuade Pakistan to drop its opposition to Myanmar becoming a Saarc member, an idea first mooted by New Delhi in the mid-1980s, the Modi government is now signalling its commitment to act east through alternative arrangements. This is most recently reflected in the move to use the BRICS summit later this month in Goa to facilitate a parallel outreach to the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).
The shift in India’s regional strategy will, however, crucially depend on the government’s capacity to override its security establishment’s traditional anxieties about cross-border connectivity. As former foreign secretary Shyam Saran noted back in 2006, “India must start looking at national boundaries not as impenetrable walls which somehow protect us from the outside world, but as ‘connectors’, bringing India closer to its neighbours.” Despite the previous PM’s promises to make regional borders irrelevant, today it still takes longer to ship a container from New Delhi to Dhaka than to Singapore.
As China looms large across the Subcontinent, in a formidable demonstration of how economics and security are connected, the PM will have to battle hard to invest the necessary resources to move South Asia to a new era of regional cooperation and integration. India’s regional interests cannot afford to wait any longer for an intransigent Pakistan and a moribund Saarc.
Constantino Xavier is associate, Carnegie India