Official India's arrogance has undermined its pretensions to South
Asian leadership at a time when prospects for regional cooperation and
prosperity had seldom seemed brighter.
India torpedoed the summit meeting of the
South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, or Saarc, which was to have
been held on Sunday and Monday in Dhaka, by declining to attend. "Security
considerations" were the official cause for the nonattendance of Prime Minister
Manmohan Singh, which caused cancellation of the event. The royal coup d'état in
Nepal was also widely cited as reason for not proceeding with the meeting. But
it is abundantly clear from the press in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh that
tension between India and the government of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia in
Bangladesh was the fundamental cause of the Indian pullout. Bangladesh has been
humiliated and Pakistan, which currently holds the Saarc chairmanship, is
Although this is only a postponement, not
a complete breakdown of the summit process, India's move has created much bad
The collapse of the summit meeting comes
at a particularly unfortunate time. Progress on India-Pakistan rapprochement has
been proceeding at least as well as might have been expected and was to have
been bolstered by a bilateral meeting in Dhaka between Manmohan Singh and
Pakistan's prime minister, Shaukat Aziz. Also on the agenda was the South Asian
Free Trade Area, which is expected to be finalized by next year.
With India and Pakistan now both pursuing
outward-looking, market-oriented economic policies and both enjoying strong
economic growth, the omens for trade and investment cooperation that would
underpin growth for all countries in the region seemed excellent.
Alas, India seems not to have learned
from the example of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that effective
regional cooperation is only possible if countries are prepared to give it
priority over bilateral disputes. In the case of India and Bangladesh, these can
best be described as bickering aggravated by the domestic politics of
Bangladesh. In turn these revolve around pro- and anti-Indian parties and
personalities: Khaleda, widow of assassinated former President Ziaur Rahman and
leader of the anti-Indian Bangladesh National Party, versus her predecessor and
bitter rival Sheikh Hasina, daughter of the assassinated independence leader
Sheikh Mujib. Hasina heads the opposition Awami League, which is favored by
India and which cheered the summit pull-out. Bangladeshi politicians of both
parties have a long record of placing party before national interests.
To be sure, there are serious security
issues in Bangladesh, highlighted by the assassination last month of an Awami
League politician and former finance minister, A.M.S. Kibria. But political
violence is nothing new in Bangladesh. Neither major party can escape blame
either for it or for the hartals, politically orchestrated strikes that are used
to undermine the legitimacy of elected governments.
Khaleda's rhetoric has upset India,
adding to tensions over various issues. These include Bangladesh's short-sighted
refusal to sell its natural gas to India, disputes over the Ganges waters,
illegal Bangladeshi immigration into India, smuggling of goods from India into
Bangladesh and India's use of Bangladesh as scapegoat for its insurgency and
security problems in its northeast states.
But these are minor spats compared with
the importance both of the India-Pakistan rapprochement and the potential for
regional economic cooperation. In any event, they are the bilateral ones that
are not supposed to interfere with regionwide cooperation. It cannot be
dependent on whether New Delhi likes the current (elected) government in Dhaka,
or the unelected one in Katmandu.
Regional cooperation can only happen if
India takes the lead, ignores bilateral frictions and is prepared to offer
economic opportunities that entice smaller and poorer countries into seeing the
benefits of freer trade. In short, India can only lead if it does not engage in
the kind of bullying evident in its withdrawal from the Saarc summit meeting.
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