Picking apart the rhetoric and formulaic addresses to the plenary session of the Saarc summit in Kathmandu is neither easy nor likely to be precise. With two of the Saarc member states — India and Pakistan — locked in interminable antagonism and a low-key war on the Siachen glacier and along parts of the Line of Control, expressions by both of emollient sentiments in the Saarc context seem at best fatuous. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called for the realisation of his own vision of South Asia as a dispute-free region despite it being gripped by the lowest human and social indicators in the world, and poverty disease and illiteracy. The countries of Saarc are home to a quarter of the world’s population and account for six per cent of global GDP when viewed as purchasing power parity and this is one of the least integrated regions in the world. There is nothing to disagree with in terms of what the prime minister said, but credulity has to be stretched by his vision which may hold true in the very broad context of a Saarc summit but is far removed from reality.
On a similar note, the commitment by the Indian prime minister to give business visas for three to five years for residents of Saarc countries on the face of it looks to be welcome — but will this apply across the board? If business visas are to be granted to all Saarc countries by India, is that going to mean there is a reciprocal commitment to grant visas to Indian residents by all other Saarc countries, including Pakistan? These are questions as yet unanswered but if the collective Saarc visa regime were to be freed up, the unlocking of potential across the region would be considerable, as would the potential for lowering tensions. This could be nothing more than Prime Minister Modi dreaming out loud, and clarity would be much desired. Where the Indian prime minister was indisputably correct was in his saying that nowhere in the world are collective efforts more urgently needed than in South Asia, and nowhere else are they so modest. A wakeful Saarc would indeed be welcome.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 27th, 2014.