Ignoring Pakistan cannot be good for India or the region

From National Herald [Commemorative Edition; 1st July, 2017]

Subcontinental regionalism is good for India as well as its neighbours, but it cannot be achieved by blind-siding Pakistan

The post-colonial countries of Southasia are recent formations, even as they together represent an ancient civilisation. India and Pakistan became independent in 1947, Sri Lanka-as Ceylon-the year after, and Bangladesh broke away in 1971. These new nation-states were based on the Westphalian model of one sovereign governance unit per ‘nation’, but in fact incorporated incredible demographic diversity and ‘minorities’ in large numbers.

The political leadership of the new born countries innovated historical narratives and justifications in order for each to set itself apart from the neighbours. Faced with demographic diversity the new power elites constructed nationalisms to encompass the multiplicity of identities. Nationalism soon morphed into exclusionary, majoritarian and xenophobic ultra-nationalism. Those who benefitted the most from this turn were the politicians, bureaucrats, security-wallahs, academics, and big businessmen – the capital-city establishments of, say, New Delhi rather than Mumbai, Islamabad and not Karachi.

It was in the interest of each capital to manipulate the shared history of the Subcontinent and force it into more convenient narratives. They also incorporated the top-down design of the British rather than the practical syncretism that the earlier empire-builders had accepted within their realm – the Gupta, Maurya or Mughal. The Independence movement before it became bifurcated through Partition, sought to unite the massive expanse – a continent with a prefix-into one country, replicating the British model of central state supported by the railway, civil administration and military force.

But it was Partition that made centralism and ultra-nationalism inevitable. While both India and Pakistan continued the colonial governance format, it became evident that the nation-state would not hold with that alone. New Delhi and Rawalpindi (later Islamabad) establishments quickly turned to populist ultra-nationalism. The close-at-hand ‘enemy’ had already been created in each other, so the centre held.

Subcontinental regionalism

The idea of Southasia does not rely on Ram Rajya or Shangri-La romanticism and nor does it recommend a return to the pre-colonial age or form of rule. It seeks instead a home-grown interpretation of ‘nation-statism’ grounded In demographic diversity and shared cultural and economic history. Rather than a supra-national authority such as a SAARC organisation, invested with required powers, subcontinental regionalism would actually lead in the other direction, to devolution of power to provincial and local levels in each country. Regionalism would also, obviously, involve closer ties and cooperation between the sovereign nation-states, building enmeshed histories and identities. The two larger countries would devolve central power, giving states/provinces more autonomy to implement policy and to interact across provincial boundaries as well as international boundaries.

That is the Southasia we seek, but today we are locked away within ever-antagonistic nation-states, as if inheritors to eons of animosities. Though by now thousands of kilometres of steel and barbed wire divide the countries, it is worth remembering that the present hostilities are less than seven decades old. We are essentially people of the same ‘country’, the demographies melding into one another across the expanse of the Subcontinent. Most of the leaders who crafted Partition themselves did not believe that the separation would last but it congealed quickly as the new national power centres established themselves.

Southasian regionalism speaks not only to cross-border cohabitation, but acknowledges the many sub-regions that exist within the Subcontinent and within the nation-states. The softening of borders and the increase in cross- border flows of people and goods will be the inevitable consequence of the empowering of sub-regions in the form of states and provinces. The nation-state of India itself is a subcontinent trying hard to become a country and Southasia is but a slightly larger version of India. Politically and economically, India may think it can afford to go it alone because it carries the bulk of the region’s population, geographical expanse, economic and military might. But regionalism is important both for India as a whole, as well as its populated states which border on the neighbours which have all lost out to Partition.

Steeped as we are in the current-day reality Southasian regionalism may appear impractical and unreachable, a goal set by romantic peaceniks. However, there can be no doubt that progressive practice of representative democracy in each nation-state will ultimately lead us to precisely this goal – economic logic alone will take us there. The better we understand this inevitability, the quicker the people will reap the dividends.

SAARC: Lowest common denominator

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was inaugurated in 1985 by seven governments of the region (Afghanistan was added in 2007), as a platform for collaboration across borders. But SAARC is an organisation hobbled by a consensus rule among the eight foreign ministries, a weak and under-funded Secretariat, and impacted by the endless internal turmoil in each of the member countries. Southasia’s succeeding presidents and prime ministers have largely suffered the existence of this organisation, created in a burst of idealism by President Ziaur Rahman of Bangladesh and his contemporary peers. For all these reasons, but mainly because the national power brokers have not wanted to let go of any amount of their privilege, SAARC has not evolved and represents the lowest common denominator of regionalism: an organisation allowed to exist out of sheer inertia.

And yet, SAARC holds out hope for the people of Southasia. It represents the acceptance of the philosophy of regionalism and also provides cover for civil-society groups vulnerable to the right wing in each country as they seek to soften borders, connect economies, expand trade and transit, and increase people-to-people contact.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a grand show of inviting the neighbouring heads of state and government at his flamboyant inauguration of May 2014 – more like a ‘durbar’ of yore. He does seem to believe in cross-border regionalism, but as an India-led effort relying on New Delhi’s munificence. This was seen, for example, in his unilateral announcement of the SAARC Satellite in November 2014, made without consulting his counterparts. The satellite, meant to support development among the neighbours, is a unique and welcome one-off idea, but the formula for cooperation between sovereign governments has to be more collaborative.

Considering Pakistan

Since the organisation’s beginning, Pakistan has been the most reluctant of the SAARC partners, which has often exasperated the other member countries. As In other matters, it was dragging its foot on the implementation of a Southasian motor vehicle agreement, and Modi seems to have decided that enough was enough. Already disenchanted with Islamabad after making some bilateral overtures, Modi made the pointed remark at the end of his address at the 18th SAARC Summit in Kathmandu in November 2014: the bonds between the countries of Southasia would grow, he said, “though SAARC or outside it, among us all or some of us.”

This was a major policy statement on regionalism coming from India, the meaning of which did not become immediately apparent to many: if Pakistan was going to play spoilsport in SAARC, then India would seek avenues of cooperation through sub-regional groupings such as BIMSTEC, BCIN and BBIN, variously incorporating countries other than Pakistan. India has moved ahead with getting Nepali and Bangladeshi agreement on the BBIN motor vehicle agreement, with Bhutan deciding to stay away for fear of inundation by foreign truckers. New Delhi scuttled the 19th SAARC Summit, meant for Islamabad in November 2016, by refusing to attend and worked behind the scenes to get the other members to back out. It does not help that Nepal, as the current SAARC chair, had a weak government led by a prime minister (Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal) unwilling to irritate India on a matter as ‘incidental’ as SAARC.

One feels constrained to ask New Delhi’s intelligentsia to distinguish between the Pakistani state and the Pakistani people, the latter having suffered for too long under sectarianism, provincial animosities, bombings, mass killings, state violence, targeting of intellectuals, and international interventionism. Nothing presently suffered by the people of the neighbours compares to the tragedies visiting the people of Pakistan. To develop a proper perspective, it might help to consider Pakistan not monolithically as a synonym for Islamabad, but as comprising the people of Balochistan, Khyber-Pakhthoonkwa, Punjab, Sindh and the ‘tribal areas’.

That the Pakistani state has its share of problems is lost on no one — including how the military and military intelligence directs politics, to the weak-kneed governments and cross-border adventurism. But it is impossible to conceive of Southasian regionalism without Pakistan, with its 196 million souls who also constitute a market, and encompassing the very cradle of Indic civilisation, from the Moenjodaro-Harrappa to Gandhar (of the Rigveda era to Kushan rule). The five rivers that make up ‘punj-ab’ all flow into and within Pakistan on the way to the sea. It bears remembering that the very name India etymologically has origins in ‘Sindhu’.

Pakistan should not be cold-shouldered by India and the other SAARC members. This is a matter not of altruism but of self-interest that comes from the need to create cultural and economic synergies across the region without ‘deleting’ Paksitan. New Delhi analysts may also want to consider that the farther you push Islamabad away from SAARC, the more it gets alienated from not only India but the other neighbours – concomitantly other powers get to deepen their engagement with Pakistan, whether it is Saudi Arabia, the US, Iran or China.

Course correction

Southasian regionalism is nothing like the romantic ‘bhai-bhai’ camaraderie of an earlier era. Rather, every country of the region – including India under Narendra Modi – needs Southasia as an imperative for relative peace, good governance, economic growth and social justice. It is only under a collaborative region with porous borders that the people of Southasia can benefit from reduced military spending, cross-border synergies, economies of scale, the decline of majoritarian ultra-nationalism, and improved representation and equity that comes from sub-national and local autonomies.

SAARC has not yet become vital to the people of Southasia, which is why its recent decline from what was already a less-than-energetic existence has gone unnoticed. However, the ramifications of a decelerating SAARC for our common future are significant. Even as it exists, SAARC guarantees minimum courtesies between the countries, and its existence also provides cover and legitimacy for civil society to work for regional peace and cohabitation.

The reactivation and reinvention of SAARC will require, as a first step, the holding of the 19th SAARC Summit in Islamabad, originally scheduled for November 2016. Holding the summit will also signal a ‘go-ahead’ on many SAARC initiatives already in place such as trade, public health, development, education. And this in turn will rejuvenate civil-society efforts on Southasian collaboration across a broad spectrum, not only SAARC-wide but also bilateral and multilateral. There will be a re-energizing of Track Two efforts at peace-building, revived hopes for cross-border commerce and exchange. We may also hope for rigorous academic study to consolidate the vision and concept of Southasian regionalism.

Much of this depends on Prime Minister Modi of India, and New Delhi’s powerful corps of think tanks. As far as Modi is concerned, as chief minister of Gujarat elevated to the helm of the nation-state at Raisina Hill, he seems to have underestimated the sense of sovereignty that guides the neighbouring polities, as it does New Delhi. He has hopefully realised that his leadership, howsoever energetic, can only go so far when confronted with the majoritarian populism that sets the agenda among the neighbours, much as it does in India.

With three years as prime minister, and having consolidated his own power base following his Uttar Pradesh win in March 2017, one can hope that Modi will open up for an all- inclusive Southasian regionalism. There is no doubt that his thinking is ‘regional’. He just needs to take Pakistan along for the ride. He may also want to consider that the weakening of Southasian regionalism will ultimately weaken India itself, both internally and internationally. India cannot hope to be a ‘world power’ when it is not able to negotiate peace and security within Southasia, and this working for the revival of SAARC. The rejuvenation of SAARC will be an important step towards fostering practical, growth-oriented, people-friendly regionalism in Southasia.


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