KATMANDU: Let’s face it: the regional cooperation envisioned in SAARC
charter cannot materialise meaningfully without Pakistan and India
resolving their major differences.
This is reminded, once again, by the state of affairs here after
nearly 30 years of the SAARC formation. On paper, there exists an
ambitious agenda for the 18th SAARC Summit. This includes various
initiatives for intra-regional connectivity through electricity,
railways and roads, which might result into three possible agreements
among SAARC members. What connectivity, you might ask considering the
ground reality. The SAARC Big Two, Pakistan and India, are not even
talking to each other, let alone mending their messy fences. You might
find the summit theme “deeper integration for peace and prosperity”
even more ironic.
Behind this charade of diplomatese and massive paraphernalia, the buck
stops at the will-they-won’t-they suspense over a possible Nawaz-Modi
meeting. Aboard the Prime Minister’s plane, Nawaz Sharif candidly
admitted that India had left no choice for Pakistan after cancelling
talks between the foreign secretaries of the two countries. He was
absolutely clear that the request for talks has to come from the
Indian side as “the ball is in India’s court.” He was so careful with
his words that he particularly cautioned us (journalists) not to
misquote him on this grave matter. He even requested us not to use an
off-the-record joke that could be misconstrued.
He minced no words in admitting that the “obstacles” between Pakistan
and India are not likely to let SAARC achieve its potential. If the
European Union (EU) could integrate their economies and borders why can’t we have some minimal regional cooperation.” So
true, considering that SAARC only has five per cent regional trade in
comparison to the EU’s 65 per cent.
Obviously, Modi’s backhanded response to Nawaz Sharif’s
extraordinary gesture of attending the Indian Prime Minister’s
oath-taking had put the Pakistan Premier in an awkward situation. Modi
comes to Nepal riding on the crest of successive victories, the recent
being the BJP breakthrough in Maharashtra and Hariana’s elections.
However, Nawaz Sharif’s situation may not be so rosy. He will have to
constantly look over his shoulders to check out on events back home
where Imran Khan is all set to invade Islamabad again. The last thing
he wants is Imran Khan to accuse him of a sell-out on India.
Perhaps Modi also has to take into account his domestic situation.
Even if we forget the RSS pressure, many insist, Modi may not want to
show flexibility on Pakistan in the middle of elections in (Indian
Occupied) Kashmir. Not after raising the ante by escalating tensions
on the LOC and by attempting to change the constitutional status of
Kashmir. But others insist that Modi also needs to deflect
international pressure on restarting Indo-Pak dialogue before Barack
The rare spirit shown by SAARC heads of governments and states to
attend Modi’s oath-taking is long gone. Five of the eight SAARC
countries have got new governments but the contours of regional
politics are yet to clear up. And it is not just Nawaz Sharif who
feels awkward at the hands of Modi. Nepal’s ruling alliance got its
share of flak when Modi almost chastised it on his arrival not to
delay writing its Constitution. He said that he did not want to
interfere in Nepal’s internal affairs but this was precisely
interference. This was hardly the way to respond to splendid display
of hospitality extended by Nepali people to SAARC leaders. Half of the
city was there to welcome them with a spectacular show of Nepal’s
cultural diversity, which, we are told, cost $30 million.
We don’t know what Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani might have in
store when he meets Modi for the first time. Ghani is definitely no
(Modi-fan) Karzai and may have ruffled a few feathers by going first
to China and Pakistan while emanating some positive vibes. What we
know is that Pakistan is pushing for China’s entry into SAARC from the
status of an observer to a full member. Just as it was difficult for
Pakistan to veto Afghanistan’s entry into SAARC it would become
difficult for India to maintain its veto against China. If India can
become a partner with China in BRICS and the recently formed China’s
Asian replica of the IMF, it will have to come up with difficult to ignore
logic to curtail China in Saarc.
Nutshell: The chances of a formal Nawaz-Modi meeting are slim. But the
Indo-Pak politics has a way of surprising twists and another one can’t
Be ruled out. The only way it will happen is if the Indians make a move
and Pakistan gives them a face-saving way out of their very harsh
stance. In any case, Nawaz and Modi will come across each other on at
least four occasions in two days. It will be interesting to see if the
two could maintain stern expressions on their faces for so long.
Hundreds of cameras will be looking for a small change in the mood.
You never know when a smile leads to a small talk, which in turn can
turn into a bigger exchange of, well, whatever. It’s unlikely but we
journalists live in the hope of capturing some rare feats.
November 26, 2014