The End of SAARC Is Near

Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi
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Pakistan has made the grouping irrelevant

THE ON-GOING visit of Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to New Delhi has all the trappings of a routine visit by a head of government: briefings, photo-ops, Q&A sessions with the press, etcetera. There is, however, one difference this time. Wickremesinghe has come to India soon after a summit of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) leaders in Islamabad was cancelled. The Sri Lankan leader has publicly said that SAARC needs to address the issue of terrorism, or else it will not last.

His words have been 32 years in the making. In retrospect, SAARC—inaugurated with much fanfare and promise in the heyday of ‘South-South’ cooperation— appears a stillborn group. Unlike other similar groupings in Southeast Asia, North America and Europe, SAARC never managed to get basic things going. From a common transport grid to free trade to all-round people-to-people contact, almost none of the attributes that make for regional commonality is to be found in the South Asian region. This is largely because of India and Pakistan, which trade with each other mostly via Middle Eastern hubs.

The reasons for this sorry state of affairs are well-known. The biggest one is Pakistan’s insistence on bringing its bilateral issues with India onto SAARC platforms. Some years ago, a regional connectivity agreement fell through because Pakistan needed to carry out ‘domestic consultations’. It was a poor ruse for not wanting such an agreement at all. Other examples of such behaviour abound.

It is hard not to question the future of SAARC. The blunt answer is that it has none. It is a geographic fact that Pakistan is part of South Asia and cannot be eliminated from the grouping; geography apart, most South Asian countries enjoy cordial relations with Pakistan. Sri Lanka is a good example. Most will not agree to Pakistan’s exit from SAARC.

The only option that remains is for Pakistan to understand that bilateral issues are to be sorted between countries, however difficult they may be. The chances of that, sadly, remain low to nil. Pakistan has invested time, blood and treasure in chasing an atavistic dream that even it knows deep down will not come to fruition. But sometimes even countries refuse to heed reality, however high the cost of chasing dreams may be. The effect of all this on SAARC, unfortunately, is nightmarish.