How long will South Asia be a prisoner of politics? And how long willpolitics will be a barrier to regional economic cooperation? These were the questions asked and debated at a recent conference in New Delhi I attended entitled “Transforming South Asia: Imperatives for Action.”
Organized by the Indian Council of World Affairs and Association of Asia Scholars, the two-day conference brought together scholars and academics from all the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations.
The agenda didn’t focus on how to resolve political disputes or reduce political tensions, but rather on how to bypass politics altogether and embrace economics to demolish the invisible wall that keeps the region’s countries aloof from each other. There was general agreement that the time has come for South Asia to rise above the mutual suspicion that has marked politics in the region, and engage with each other to claim the same space inthe global economy South Asia enjoyed before the advent of colonization. According to one estimate, the subcontinent made up two thirds of global GDP during the 18th century, compared with just 6 percent to 7 percent now.
To reclaim its space in the world, regional integration is a must, and the time has come for SAARC to help transform South Asia in the same way that the European Union has changed Europe.
“We have a moment in history which we should seize if we wish to transform South Asia,” said Indian National Security Advisor Shivshanker Menon during the opening address to the conference.
A concept paper from the ICWA argued that the real test for SAARC now is to benefit from the process of globalization through deeper regional integration, including eventually creating a South Asian economic union. To achieve this goal, a deliberate shift from “independence” to “interdependence” is needed, with identified priority areas to allow for smooth implementation.
There was consensus among participants that member nations, particularly India, need to change their mindset to achieve this. As the largest country, and as a rapidly growing economic power in the region, New Delhi needsto demonstrate the magnanimity of a big power and show a spirit of camaraderie in accommodating the wishes of its smaller neighbors.
Prof. Muinul Islam of Chittagong University, Bangladesh, underlined the need for open trade that excludes the building of fences along the Indo-Bangladesh border. Such barriers, he said, have deprivedthe people of the region from their historical, cultural and trade legacy. He said it has also created distrust about India in Dhaka, and he noted the highhandedness being shown by the Indian Border Security Forcein dealing with poor Bangladeshis who want to cross the border to trade local products.
A good trade relationship with Bangladesh is also vital for the development of India’s northeastern states, which share around 90 percent of their border with Bangladesh. Allowing easy transit across the border would not only boost the local economy on both sides, but could make the region a useful economic hub for India. Prof. Islam also suggested that should the economies of Bangladesh and northeastern India become more closely linked, economic prosperity would help neutralize the insurgency that currently flourishes in the region.
Delegates from Pakistan also expressed the need for engagement with India. Huma Baqai joint secretary of the Karachi Council on Foreign Relations, termed the recent granting of Most Favored Nation (MFN) status to India as a great leap forward in writing a new narrative of engagement between the two. She argued that Pakistan, despite opposition from its traditional anti-India groups, and despite protests from small traders, wants to enhance economic engagement with its neighbor. According to Huma, Islamabad wants to free itself from the prison of preexisting perceptions that have created a hotbed of terrorism. The gradual but steady assertion of democratic institutions in the country is an indication that traditional power centers and stakeholders are ceding ground to new forces that see Pakistan’s future as tied to economic engagement with its neighbors, particularly India.
What was particularly interesting was the presence of a five-member delegation from Afghanistan representing different institutions. Its members talked at length about the prevailing political situation in the country, talks with the Taliban and post-2014 scenarios. They all agreed that Afghanistan’s future lies in greater engagement with SAARC member countries rather than thepresence of NATO troops. They said that Afghanistan needn’t become a political battlefield for competing forces, and that it has the potential, through integration, to become an economic hub for South Asia.
Haroon Mir, a political analyst, expressed his desire to one day travel by bus from Kabul to New Delhi and then on to Lahore. He said he dreams of a day when the pomegranate of the Hindu Kush can be easily exported to markets in Delhi. Omar Sharifi,director of the American Institute of Afghan Studies, said that, “the future will require less blood andtreasure, and more strategic and enduring commitment that is clear and mutually dependable.”
SinhaRaja Tammita-Delgoda, an academic from Sri Lanka, stressed the need for South Asian nations to come together to liberate each other from economic backwardness. “It is our duty as fellow South Asians to liberate our partners, to make sure that everyone has a stake or share,” Tammita-Delgoda said. “This should be one of the tasks which we set ourselves. If we can’t, how can we hope to liberate ourselves? How can we hope to change South Asia?”
There was broad consensus among all participants that without India’s active engagement and enlightened vision, South Asia can’t achieve the dream of a “European Union.” They concluded that Germany and France, who managed to set their historical tensions and differences to one side, can serve as a model for India and Pakistan.