Precisely six months after Narendra Modi took office as prime minister and his promise of achche din or “good days” caught the imagination of the Indian people, the high expectations raised by Modi’s style and governance are spreading in the country’s neighbourhood. When Modi and seven other heads of State and government from South Asia meet in Kathmandu a week from today, India will stop being treated as the whipping boy within the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation for the first time since Saarc was formed with great fanfare in 1985.
In the run up to next week’s Kathmandu summit, voices continue to be raised that India should do more for its neighbours than vice versa in echoes of the ill-advised and mercifully short-lived “Gujral doctrine”, but such voices are fewer and feebler than at any time before. Instead, the new talking point in the region is that although India accounts for 70 to 80 per cent of the region’s economy, its resources, South Asia’s demographic dividend and much else, the country could be held back in its “Modification” — in more ways than one — unless the prime minister incorporates neighbouring countries into his vision for the future. Because Modi constantly stresses development, both social and economic, in his speeches, the single big theme for the Kathmandu summit will be that the entire South Asia region should move forward together and no country should become the laggard within Saarc.
Deliberately at the choice of Modi, he took office in the presence of all the Saarc leaders at variously high levels from presidents and prime ministers to speaker of an elected legislature. It may be a coincidence that the first Saarc summit attended by Modi will convene exactly six months to the day when he was sworn in as prime minister.
But with Modi one can never be sure. Recall how with unstated planning and understated attention, he entered the South Block office of the prime minister on the 50th anniversary of the death of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, whom he admires. Assertions to the contrary by some people during last week’s 125th birth anniversary of Nehru have been ill-informed and are unfair to Modi.
In the run up to the Kathmandu summit, it is instructive to read Nepal’s press. It is as if there is only one head of government travelling to Kathmandu for the Saarc conclave: Narendra Modi. Every day, front-page stories are featured about him — what he will do, where he will go, and speculation about what he will say. Coverage of Modi has been to the exclusion of everyone else who is his peer in the region even though others attending the summit have all been his seniors in office, some of them veterans in their own right.
The spread of Modi’s charisma also means heightened expectations from Saarc, for a change. Traditionally Saarc has been a very boring platform for those like this columnist covering its summits, except when the meetings are electrified by the possibility that the prime ministers of India and Pakistan may meet, even if for a futile handshake and tea.
This year, even though neither India nor Pakistan has so far sought a bilateral meeting with each other — and none is likely to take place, barring a stunning last minute change in schedules — there is a feeling that the outcomes from Kathmandu may have many things worthwhile and substantive. Such expectations are entirely owed to Modi’s spreading charisma and the manner in which he is trying to change governance in his country.
The strongest signal of this has been China’s sudden interest in upgrading its status within Saarc from merely one of the organization’s nine observers to that of a “dialogue partner”. There is no concept within Saarc of a dialogue partner, yet when senior Saarc officials met in the run up to the 18th summit, signals in this regard coming from Beijing were discussed threadbare. For now, it has been decided to maintain the status quo. The consensus among senior officials from the region was that Saarc could not withstand such a change at this stage involving a big country with a dynamic and large economy like China’s. It was agreed that the organization is already stretched and the priority should be to consolidate what it has started but left by the wayside because of contradictions and pulls within South Asia.
Beijing’s diplomatic antennae are sharp. Its interest in upgrading its position within Saarc is a clear indication that the summit in Kathmandu may herald changes in the region that China must not only take note of but also be party to. There was little doubt among senior officials when they discussed this issue that Modi is the main factor behind this potential transformation of Saarc.
Experience also counts in any transformation of Saarc. The ministry of external affairs has a surfeit of Sinologists. In the heyday of Indo-Soviet friendship, Kremlinologists were aplenty and in high demand. Lately, specialists on Latin America have been in bloom, some of whom, for good reasons, also have a healthy appreciation of the joyful things in life that countries in that region can offer. But the ministry has hardly had any Saarc specialists although experts on specific South Asian countries, especially Pakistan and Afghanistan, have been great assets. For a change, India’s point person for next week’s Kathmandu summit is the country’s first diplomat who can fit the description of a South Asia specialist. This columnist has vivid memories of the Saarc summit in Colombo in July, 1998, which was special like the coming Kathmandu summit, albeit for different reasons. The year, 1998, was a landmark for the whole region because India and Pakistan had both declared themselves nuclear powers shortly before Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif travelled to Sri Lanka for their first meeting. It led to many more strategic developments in South Asia, which are nothing short of historic.
The Indian ‘sherpa’ for the Kathmandu summit next week — although he is not designated as such — was a deputy secretary in charge of Saarc in that critical year. The ground work for the Colombo summit and its follow- up 16 years ago was unlike that for any other meeting connected with or on the sidelines of Saarc. For a ministry that is notoriously lax in making the best use of regional expertise and subject specializations, it is to the credit of South Block that this officer was located and put in charge of the prime minister’s first structured regional engagement of India’s neighbourhood, which offers both challenges and opportunities.
So, what are the possibilities from Kathmandu that are etched in stone? For sure, a path-breaking agreement to be signed in Kathmandu will make it possible for the first time for people in the region to drive across their borders, Pakistan exempted realistically, of course. In Europe and North America, people cross their borders seamlessly in motor cars. South Asia is way behind in such mobility and the Kathmandu summit offers hope of a new beginning with the proposed signing of the first Saarc motor vehicle agreement.
Reminiscent of Vajpayee’s bus trip to Lahore, as of now, Modi plans to cross into Nepal by road for the summit. Additionally, he plans to flag off at least one of three daily bus services between various points in Nepal and New Delhi. A container train service from Bangladesh to Nepal will be the first consequence of a Saarc railway agreement, which has been finalized for signature in Kathmandu. Yet another concrete outcome of the summit will be a Saarc framework agreement on energy cooperation. This can have a long-term impact on the prosperity of all of South Asia through sharing of energy resources. A modest beginning perhaps, but a refreshing change for an organization, which the world had begun to discard as moribund.