Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi first demonstrated his commitment to India’s neighborhood as a cornerstone of his foreign policy when he decided to invite South Asia’s heads of government to his inauguration in May. That initiative, beyond yielding a few choice photo ops, emphasized Modi’s view that in order for India to be recognized as a leader on the world stage, it had to first take its place as a leader within South Asia. By all measures of national power, India stands head and shoulders above each of its neighbors. Yet South Asia sorely lacks any real multilateral progress. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was once heralded as South Asia’s precursor to ASEAN-esque integration, but has yet to yield any real dividends for the region.
Based on comments made earlier this week, Modi seems intent on changing SAARC’s status in South Asia. According to Modi, South Asian countries should focus on identifying their common heritage, challenges, and opportunities to foster regional cooperation. Modi, who made the remarks while receiving Nepali Foreign Minister Mahendra Bahadur Pandey, also added that he attaches the highest level of priority to India’s relations with SAARC countries. Modi will be attending the upcoming 18th SAARC Summit, which will take place in Kathmandu, Nepal in late November. India will provide transportation and security assistance at the summit.
The 18th SAARC Summit could be one to watch as India’s dynamic new prime minister formally attempts to turn his vision for an integrated South Asia with India as a hub into reality. One of SAARC’s perennial challenges has been getting its two largest members — India and Pakistan — to cooperate for the benefit of the other member states. Given the recent flare up in tensions between the two, including a series of attacks on civilians from both sides, the November SAARC Summit could once again be overshadowed by India-Pakistan discord.
After years of discussions of fostering South Asian cooperation, going back to the late 1940s and early 1950s, SAARC was formally launched in 1985. An Integrated Program of Action (IPA) agreed to in the early years of the organization called for the members cooperate on agriculture, rural development, telecommunications, meteorology, and health and population activities. SAARC consultations additionally led to the conclusion of the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) agreement that will see Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka all reduce customs duties on traded goods to zero by 2016. Beyond this, SAARC remains a limited talking shop for regional leaders.
In his first five months in office, Modi has established a reputation for himself as a tireless and dynamic diplomat. If any South Asian leader has the capacity to reinvent SAARC, it should be him. We’ll find out if this is the case later this year when Modi heads to Kathmandu for the SAARC Summit.