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By Dhananjay Tripathi

The last couple of years has not been good for South Asia, which, in all respects, stands divided. Politically and economically, South Asia is regarded as one of the world’s least integrated regions. This post-colonial, post-partition region has failed to stand united despite establishing the South Asian Association For Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in 1985. The ineffectiveness of SAARC is estimated by the fact that hardly any experts like to endorse it, intellectually or otherwise.

The literature on South Asian regionalism is full of pessimistic commentaries and only reflection on impediments like the rivalry between India and Pakistan and Indian regional hegemony. On careful analysis, we can even easily divide two schools of thought offering different reasons for the lack of cooperation in South Asia.

Two Schools of Thought

The first one is dominated mainly by Indian and Pakistani experts who like to blame enmity between these two countries for the struggle of SAARC. Some recent examples are the SAARC Motor Vehicle agreement that India enthusiastically backed, but it failed to get consent from Pakistan at the 2014 SAARC summit. The most glaring of all is the failure of South Asian countries to meet for the SAARC summit after 2014, as India and other countries wanted to register their protest against Pakistan for supporting terrorism. In 2016, the SAARC summit was scheduled in Islamabad, but after a major terror strike in India by a Pakistan-based militant organisation, India expressed anguish and refused to attend it.

While accepting the first argument, the second school adds that South Asian regionalism is difficult because the region has power asymmetry. Unlike Europe or Southeast Asia, where power differences between countries are not much, India dominates in terms of economy, geography, demography and strategic-depth in South Asia. Pakistan is the only country in the region that comes a little close to matching the Indian military strength. India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons, but India is considered superior in conventional military terms.

In short, there is the theory that India will benefit from regional integration at the cost of small countries in South Asia. Therefore, one cannot see much eagerness for regionalism in different capitals of South Asia.

South Asianness: The Diminishing Space

There is hardly any strong regional group that likes to propagate the idea of South Asianness. Honestly, even for a strong proponent of regionalism, it is tough to counter the dominant arguments that paint a gloomy picture of South Asia. Needless to say, South Asia in the last few years has been fast losing its appeal among the academia, policymakers, and the worst is even among the small minority of regional activists.

We do not find voices like the late Asma Jahangir and Kamala Bhasin. They dared to talk of peace and partnership between India and Pakistan and invoke the idea of South Asia in public forums. Moreover, the space for regional activism has shrunk over the years, and politically this community has faced troubles in their respective countries.

Recent Events: Rethink Regionalism

The next logical question – is South Asia an irrelevant category of discussion, and we shall move in other directions like sub-regionalism. Theoretically, sub-regionalism is not assumed to counter regionalism; in other words, it only complements the latter. It is like different routes taking us to the same destination. Although, despite high-pitched propaganda for several sub-regional initiatives, it is tough to present data proving their efficacies except in political discourses. South Asia is still the most relevant category for the countries of the region, and it cannot be ignored.

The recent crisis in the region, like the one in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, re-establishes that South Asia requires some robust organisation that can respond at times of humanitarian crisis. Both Sri Lanka and Afghanistan require generous financial help. The tragedy is that South Asia as a region is not in the position to offer substantial support to any of these countries. At the South Asian level, New Delhi is predominantly engaged in reaching out to the people of Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. The Indian approach to these crises is exemplary and deserves applause; nonetheless, a few critics consider it unilateralism inspired by future political agenda.

In the recent past, the China question, hyper-projection of Indo-Pacific, the USA-China competition and in all of these, the role of India is overly discussed. As a result, some analysts in South Asia started defining contemporary Indian foreign policy as Western-centred. Thus, India’s help to Sri Lanka is examined from the perspective of New Delhi’s effort to counter China in the island nation. Similarly, the Indian move to open a channel with the Taliban to offer assistance to Afghanistan is described as a part of a larger strategy to keep a check on Pakistan and China.

While there is no need to be defensive on good deeds, India needs to be diplomatically more thoughtful on these issues. India is a major issue in the domestic politics of all these countries. Remember the recent public protest against India in the Maldives by the opposition political parties. New Delhi shall be mindful of such public outrage in South Asian countries. Thus, India taking a regional road by making every South Asian country a stakeholder in the process will be more favourable for its public image in the region. The difficulty is that a section of Indian foreign policy bureaucrats remains oblivious of the region and unwilling to reject the geostrategic framework.

To repeat my earlier argument in this article and others published earlier, this is a historic juncture for South Asia and India. The neighbourhood first policy is prioritised, India is moving confidently on several foreign policy fronts, and a little more consideration for South Asia can bring real change. For other South Asian countries, including Pakistan, regionalism is a viable solution to a number of their problems.

(The author is Associate Professor, Department of International Relations, South Asian University, New Delhi)

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Author: Howard Caldwell