Byline: C. Raja Mohan
Two recent developments on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly suggest that "South Asia" as a political construct, at least the one built from top down, may have had its moment. Perhaps it's time India moved on. According to reports, three of the eight South Asian foreign ministers left the room after making their speeches at the annual gathering in New York. They were from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and India. This could just be a clash of schedules in a busy diplomatic week in New York. But it also says something about the deepening crisis of credibility of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. The second was an event that did not take place. A meeting between the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan.
The euphoria for a thaw between Delhi and Islamabad following the election of Imran Khan as the new Prime Minister of Pakistan did not even last a few days. Within 24 hours after announcing talks, India chose to pull out. India, of course, is not the only one having problems with Pakistan. Its other South Asian neighbour, Afghanistan, like India, had entertained hopes for a fresh beginning in the ties with Pakistan. Kabul's hopes that Imran, often called "Taliban Khan", can quickly deliver on peace, have been tempered. Pakistan's relations with Bangladesh have been in a deep chill for such a long time that no one expects a reversal of fortunes any time soon.
India's refusal to engage Pakistan unless Islamabad addresses its concerns on cross-border terrorism, has also held up the next SAARC summit in Islamabad. The last summit of the leaders of the eight SAARC countries was convened in Kathmandu in late 2014. The real tragedy, of course, is that nothing of substance would come out even if the summit was held tomorrow in Islamabad. Consider, for example, Pakistan's decision not to sign agreements on regional connectivity at the Kathmandu summit in 2014. Pakistan was very much part of the extended negotiations and its bureaucrats and ministers had signed off on the outcome. But PM Nawaz Sharif was not at liberty to sign the agreements, thanks to the Pakistan army that reportedly pulled the plug on the agreements at the very last minute. It is not a question of how we apportion the blame for this unfortunate situation.
It is about coming to terms with the fact that the SAARC project has now lost all steam. That does not mean the region is in mourning. All countries are finding alternatives...