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India’s two major political parties, Bharatiya Janata Party and Indian National Congress, appear sharply divided over their approaches when it comes to taking forward two major regional groupings—SAARC and BIMSTEC—as the country heads to polls this week.

The election manifesto of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, unveiled on Monday in New Delhi, talks about expediting BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) but has dropped the mention of SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation). In contrast, the Congress party in its manifesto is silent on BIMSTEC, while it makes a push for SAARC.

Though foreign policy issues do not dominate India’s elections, how Delhi wants to take the two major regional organisations forward will have significant implications in the region and the future of the two blocs, foreign policy experts from Nepal and India told the Post. They, however, appeared convinced that SAARC might struggle to gain momentum regardless of which party comes to power.

“If the BJP wins, SAARC may not be able to come out as a strong organisation and probably plunge into deep trouble,” Nihar R Nayak, a research fellow at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, told the Post over the phone from New Delhi. “There is a big debate going on in India as to how SAARC has progressed so far. So, even if the Congress comes to power, the likelihood of the stalled SAARC getting momentum is little.”

Nayak said it was clear the BJP preferred BIMSTEC and BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal Initiative) to move forward.

Nepal is the founding member and current chair of SAARC and its secretariat is based in Kathmandu. Established in 1985, the regional bloc has since its inception been pulled back by India-Pakistan rivalry. Nepal joined BIMSTEC in February 2004 and hosted the fourth summit of the group last year.

“SAARC has been overshadowed for long and until India-Pakistan issues are resolved, chances of the regional bloc gaining momentum are minimal,” Arjun Bahadur Thapa,  former secretary general of SAARC, told the Post.

In its manifesto unveiled last week, the Indian Congress said it will work with SAARC and ASEAN countries to enhance the volume of trade, investments, tourism and cultural exchanges and reap the benefits of geographical proximity. The Congress party had also laid emphasis on SAARC framework in its manifesto for the 2014 elections.

But the ruling BJP, which in its 2014 election manifesto said it would work to strengthen regional forums like SAARC and ASEAN, has made a complete departure in its 2019 manifesto.

“To forward our Neighborhood First policy, we will extensively leverage forums such as BIMSTEC to accelerate regional coordination and economic cooperation with countries in our neighbourhood,” a section of the manifesto reads. The party has also stated that to ensure an open, inclusive, prosperous and secure Indo-Pacific, it will pursue the strategy vigorously.

Nepal is also part of the larger Indo-Pacific Strategy/Region initiated by the United States.  

BIMSTEC is important for Nepal, but an overshadowed SAARC will be a major setback, as it has been, in the capacity of the chair of the bloc, pushing for a 19th summit which remains stalled since 2016.

India pulled out of the summit scheduled for November 2016 in Islamabad following a terrorist attack in its army base in Uri of Kashmir, demanding that Pakistan take “concrete actions” against terrorist outfits operating from its soil.

Since then, meetings at political levels—SAARC foreign minister and foreign secretaries—which are instrumental in expediting the stalled the SAARC process, have been suspended.

“India enjoys a lot of clout in the region. Our repeated requests did not work because the majority of the countries rallied behind India after it pulled out of the scheduled summit,” Thapa told the Post.

However, until 2014, the situation was not as bleak for SAARC as it looks now.

In the spirit of the BJP’s 2014 elections manifesto, after winning the elections, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited all SAARC heads of state and government at his oath-taking ceremony in New Delhi, sending a message that his government was strongly committed to the SAARC process. The gesture generated hope that SAARC was set to make good progress. The same year, Modi arrived in Kathmandu to participate in the 18th SAARC summit.

But diplomatic sources say the enthusiasm and excitement seen and witnessed in 2014 started to wane after India and Pakistan, the nuclear-armed rivals in the region, could not agree on SAARC Motor Vehicle Agreement and SAARC Satellite. Both were proposed and initiated by India during the Kathmandu summit.

The Modi government then started to make a push for the BBIN, a sub-regional platform that does not include Pakistan. But the BBIN too has failed to make much progress.

For the Modi government, BIMSTEC, another regional bloc sans Pakistan, appeared a rather promising platform as it tried to expand its influence in the region.

“After the disagreement between India and Pakistan during the Kathmandu summit, Delhi realised that SAARC cannot make progress,” Nayak told the Post.

Both Thapa and Nayak said there was no guarantee the SAARC process will get revived even if the Indian Congress wins the 2019 elections.

“We made several attempts to bring India and Pakistan to a dialogue. But the BJP government was adamant on the issue of terrorism. They would tell us bomb and peace cannot go together,” Thapa told the Post.

Amid all this, tension escalated between the two nuclear-armed countries again in February this year, after a car bomb attack killed 40 Indian soldiers in Pulwama of Jammu and Kashmir of India, bringing them to the brink of war.

In an email interview, Constantino Xavier, a fellow at Brookings India, told the Post that he does not foresee any significant changes in Indian neighbourhood policy regardless of who comes to power—the BJP, the Congress or any other party.

“The priority will continue to be on enhancing connectivity, including through regional organisations like SAARC and BIMSTEC, which are complementary,” Xavier said. “India’s disinterest in SAARC is a function of its larger Pakistan policy and Islamabad’s persistent unwillingness to embrace the logic of regional connectivity beyond its focus on Beijing and CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor).”

According to Xavier, more than the common foreign policy objectives, both manifestos recognise that India will only be able to pursue its neighbourhood interests and deliver on commitments if it expands its vastly understaffed foreign service.

“Neighbouring countries like Nepal will no longer wait for India to deliver as they now have reliable alternatives, especially in China,” he said, “to finance infrastructure development and governance modernisation.”

Published: 08-04-2019 23:49

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