The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Tagore-&-trade diplomacy

New Delhi, April 3: Just as the inaugural session of the 14th Saarc summit seemed in danger of lapsing into yet another has-been conference, Bangladesh’s chief adviser Fakhruddin Ahmed rescued the morning by ending his speech with a Tagore poem.

“This is my prayer to thee, my lord — strike, strike at the root of penury in my heart/ Give me the strength lightly to bear my joys and sorrows/… Give me the strength to raise my mind high above daily trifle/ And give me the strength to surrender my strength to thy will with love.…’’

Very few in the Vigyan Bhavan audience understood the significance of a Bangladeshi leader reciting Tagore. The hall may not have smelt of hilsa, but it certainly resonated with the unspoken yearning for a past that was never as bitter as bilateral relations seem today.

“We must now make a break with the past and join hands to realise our common, shared destiny,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said.

Singh, who has been stressing the need to unleash South Asia from the mental and physical bondage of partition through different “connectivities”, announced the unilateral liberalisation of visas for students, teachers, professors, journalists and patients from Saarc countries.

“The dream of regional connectivity will not be realised merely by building roads and railways,’’ he said, calling for a world-class South Asian university to engage the regional mind.

Exceedingly careful about not making any references to the dramatic political transformation taking place in the region, Singh could not help pointing out that “our governments are now addressing the bilateral political issues that have prevented us from achieving our potential”.

Perhaps this was a reference to the ongoing talks with Pakistan on Kashmir, with Bangladesh on restoring the normality of bilateral ties, with Nepal on stabilising the northern nation, and with Sri Lanka on finding new ways to defeat the LTTE.

But the economist Prime Minister seemed to have been stymied by bureaucracy in his area of expertise. The idea of an integrated market from the Himalayas to the Pacific and India’s willingness to shoulder “asymmetric responsibilities” within Safta (South Asian Free Trade Agreement), was limited to New Delhi allowing duty-free access to only the least developed countries among the neighbours.

That means only Bangladesh and Afghanistan — which has become Saarc’s eighth member at this summit. Nepal has a different free trade arrangement with Delhi, Bhutan’s per capita income after the success of its hydro-electric power complexes is almost on a par with India, and the Maldives with its population of 280,000 has used tourism to lift itself out of poverty.

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