Saturday 26 July 2014

Saarc peace & prosperity zone (Pakistan Observer)

M.D. Nalapat
Friday, July 25, 2014 - Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a clear indication of his priorities when he invited India’s SAARC neighbours to his swearing-in on May 26. Defying those from within his coalition who wanted to exclude Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa from the list, he was warmly welcomed to Delhi by the PM. Defying those in Pakistan who urged him to boycott the swearing-in ceremony, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made the visit, and the talk in the national capital is that he and his counterpart found that they have a chemistry that promoted mutual regard and friendship.

In order to underline the importance of SAARC, the first foreign visit made by the new Prime Minister was to Bhutan, a country with a vibrant cultural and historical tapestry. The attention paid to SAARC by Prime Minister Modi was in contrast to his predecessor, who devoted much more attention to more far away shores, so that the relationship between India and its SAARC neighbours became frayed. Peaceful borders is a significant factor in creating conditions for faster economic development, the goal of Narendra Modi, who recognizes that only double-digit growth for a generation has the potential to lift hundreds of millions from poverty. The reality is that a friendly atmosphere between India and its SAARC neighbours can be a “Win-Win” for both sides. Greater trade in goods and services will create all-round employment, thereby reducing the influence of extremists who prey on poverty in their recruitment drives. Across SAARC, the enemies are the same: Poverty and Intolerance, weak standards of health and sanitation, lack of education and lower quality of learning in schools and universities.

The rest of the world will not pause while the SAARC countries amble along slowly in an effort to ensure better coordination. The zone has to have double-digit growth if it is to collectively ensured that its demographic dividend not morph into a disaster, with hundreds of millions of young and discontented under-educated unemployed rampaging across cities in the fashion witnessed in some other parts of the globe, and indeed even within SAARC, notably in Bangla Desh. The fact is that the countries in SAARC (which should be expanded to include Myanmar, now that Afghanistan is being welcomed) have natural complementarities that it would be a shame to waste. Their land and air space can serve as corridors for all the member-states. Connectivity between SAARC members is abysmal, with flights being infrequent and sea, road and rail services almost non-existent. Elections will be fought and won not on the basis of jingoistic slogans but on the achievement of prosperity. Narendra Modi’s success in election after election in Gujarat was based not on any social philosophy - real or imagined - but on the reality of prosperity. Electric power is available the whole day, and everywhere in the state. Roads are properly maintained, while the delivery of government services is prompt and of reasonable quality. Hundreds of thousands of voters from across the country who for a time lived and worked in Gujarat during the years (2001-2014) when Modi was in charge were his most effective campaign agents. They spread reports of his drive and efficiency, thereby giving voters across India hope that he can pull off a similar feat in the whole of India, if made the PM.

It was no secret that it was from the time that Narendra Modi was declared the Prime Ministerial candidate of the BJP in the closing months of 2013 that the BJP’s election campaign accelerated. Had the matter been kept vague, or had another person been seen as the PM in case the party won, the number of seats secured by the BJP would have been far less. Of course, even with Modi to campaign, about two dozen seats were lost because of poor selection of candidates by the BJP. SAARC needs to come out of the lack of ambition about its ambit that has marked the organisation since its inception. As a start, the restriction on discussion of “bilateral” issues within the forum needs to be removed. Good friends should be given the freedom to discuss every important matter, whether they fall into the “bilateral” or the “multilateral” box. Next, the proposal for a SAARC Development Bank needs to be worked out, now that the BRICS bank has finally taken shape. If prosperity is shared, so will peace be.

The two usually go together. A permanent SAARC headquarters needs to be established, and it would be a gesture towards the smaller members if this honour be made to go to one of them. The fact that the United Nations, the IMF and the World Bank are all located in the US has created skewness in the international architecture of governance that has distorted priorities and created dissonance. SAARC needs to spread its permanent institutions more widely, so as to avoid the Bretton Woods model of setting up global institutions that are dominated by a single country and its close allies. The world has changed since 1945 but the UN, the World Bank and the IMF have not. Incredibly, small European countries have the same voting rights in the IMF that China has, and indeed much bigger rights than another large economy, India. After waiting patiently since 1945 for good sense to dawn on the US and its close allies to bring into alignment the governance structure of the Bretton Woods institutions into sync with global reality, the BRICS powers have finally lost patience and have begun the process of setting up their own. So should SAARC.

Although derided in international fora for what is seen as its lack of coherence and effectiveness, SAARC has the potential to emerge as a significant force in the architecture of governance that is taking shape in a world where economic weightage is shifting back to Asia. The leaders of the SAARC countries should build upon the “Spirit of May 26” and craft a structure that would fast-track the cooperation and partnership needed for every member of SAARC to prosper, thereby ensuring peace, both within borders and across them.

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