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04 December, 2014

Time to move forward in S. Asia

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a dramatic impact by turning his swearing-in ceremony six months ago into an occasion for an informal get-together of leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. The air of goodwill that it created was missing when the regular Saarc summit was held in Kathmandu last week.

The mood was spoiled not by any specific bilateral or multilateral issue but the frigidity in India-Pakistan relations. Modi and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif spent the first day studiously avoiding each other. Cameramen waiting to record the customary handshake were disappointed. They circulated pictures which showed Modi walking past Sharif without even a nod.

Officials of the eight-nation group were ready with three draft agreements — on energy cooperation, regulation of passenger and cargo vehicular traffic, and movement by rail. The result of an Indian initiative, the three agreements were to be signed at the summit. But Nawaz Sharif sulked. He argued there had not been sufficient internal preparations to go ahead with them.

On the second day the ice was broken through the efforts of Nepalese Prime Minister Sushil Koirala. When the leaders came together for their final session, Modi and Sharif shook hands, and the Foreign Ministers signed the agreement on energy cooperation. Koirala said the agreements on road and rail traffic would be signed after Saarc Transport Ministers met and reviewed the draft.

India’s business community, which stands to benefit the most from increased trade among the Saarc countries, was disappointed by the failure to sign the agreements on transportation. The Confederation of Indian Industry said the agreement for regulation of vehicular traffic would lead to seamless movement of cargo, personal vehicles and passengers across land borders. The railways agreement too would harness the region’s economic potential.

The India-Pakistan standoff came in the wake of firing across the international border and the line of control in Jammu and Kashmir during the past few months and the calling off of scheduled ministerial-level bilateral talks by Modi’s government to show its displeasure over the Pakistani High Commissioner’s talks with separatist leaders of Kashmir.

Border clashes have been occurring regularly since the middle of July, with military and civilian casualties on both sides. Each side routinely accuses the other of firing first. At one stage, Defence Minister Arun Jaitley warned Pakistan that if it did not stop unprovoked firing India would impose an unaffordable cost on it. Pakistan’s Defence Minister, Khwaja Asif, responded with a subtle reference to nuclear power.

In 2013, Modi, as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate, had repeatedly taunted the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government for failing to respond effectively to incidents on the borders with China and Pakistan. In a tweet he said, “India is going through a troubled situation. China intrudes our borders, Pakistan kills our soldiers time & again but Centre doesn’t act!”

The Congress is now paying back in the same coin. Last week a Congress party spokesman said more than 400 ceasefire violations had taken place on the Pakistan border this year and 17 civilians had died, “compared to zero casualty last year and also in 2011.” As a party which has been in power for many decades, the Congress must know better than to exploit an issue of this kind for political gains.

India accounts for about 70 per cent of the area and population of the eight Saarc countries. Its prickly relationship with Pakistan, the second largest economy of the region, has been a hurdle in the way of realisation of the Saarc goal of a free trade zone. None of the other member nations has the clout to steer the group out of the India-Pakistan matrix. The leaders of the two countries themselves must, therefore, take the initiative in this regard.

In the six months Modi has been in office he has spent considerable time on foreign affairs, leading to whispers that External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has been reduced to a dummy. Modi’s invitation to the Saarc leaders for his swearing-in gave rise to the impression that he accords high priority to development of good-neighbourly relations. However, he is yet to come up with any concrete proposals in this regard.

The United Nations having rebuffed Pakistan’s bid to internationalise the Kashmir issue once again, the time is ripe for India to make a fresh bid to carry forward the bilateral process. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 4, 2014.

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