[Modi video-conferencing with SAARC leaders]
Prime Minister Narendra Modi initiated perhaps the most significant foreign policy move of his government to-date: He called a video-summit February 15 of the heads of government of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations to discuss how together to deal with the Caronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic now sweeping through rest of Asia, Europe and the world and entering the extended subcontinental region in strength. Presidents Ibrahim Solih of the Maldives, Gotabaya Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka, Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan, and Prime Ministers Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh, Lotay Tshering of Bhutan and KP Sharma of Nepal, reacted with alacrity to this surprising and entirely unexpected show of Indian leadership. It showed just how fertile the ground is for India to assume stewardship of the region not by the usual means of bluster and strong arm methods that have long marred India’s relations with its closest neighbours, but by displaying genuine willingness to listen to their concerns, accommodating them, and helping them help themselves.
Indeed, so swift and positive was the response of the other South Asian states that, after the initial hesitation even the Tehreek-e-Insaf party regime in Pakistan felt compelled to fall in line and join the proposed video conference. But in keeping with the current tenor of bilateral ties, Prime Minister Imran Khan tried to derate the event by having his assistant for health, Zafar Mirza, represent him and get the latter to sideline the Modi initiative by insisting that (1) restoring status quo ante in Kashmir is necessary for the success of the Modi initiative, and (2) the SAARC secretariat in Kathmandu, not Delhi, spearhead the anti-Corona virus campaign. But no damage was done in part because of what the Indian PM promised.
An expansive Modi offered testing kits and rapid response Indian medical teams of specialist doctors and technicians for deployment anywhere in the region at the request of any country, “online training capsules” for emergency teams these countries may care to constitute, the “integrated disease surveillance portal” software that India has developed to detect and trace the movement of virus carriers, and a forum for public health experts and medical researchers to confer with each other, share information and data, and mount collaborative research projects to find an antidote, which objective has been furthered by the success of the National Institute of Virology, Pune, in isolating the caronavirus gene, which process can be quickly shared with labs and agencies in the region. Of course, the kooks on the fringes peddling gaumutra (cow urine) as remedy should be no part of these exchanges! Cooperation on the Caronavirus will set India up as the regional benefactor, a role which if Delhi plays it right can be parlayed into something strategically impressive.
Implicitly and most importantly, Modi accepted that India as the largest economy and with the biggest expert manpower pool, would be subsidizing and sustaining this effort. This aspect should be amplified by our embassies to the governments in the region. However, his announcement of just $10 million as India’s contribution to the emergency fund for SAARC countries to draw from was an anti-climax. It was too small a sum to impress anybody, or to address the real worries of the economic impact of the pandemic that several participating leaders voiced.
Solih, for instance, revealed how in the past month or so tourism, Maldives’ sole source of revenue, had suffered a 20% drop and was excepted to plunge another 15% shortly. Rajpaksa likewise referred to the severe decline in tourist traffic from Europe and pleaded for “a mechanism to assist our economies to tide over the very difficult period.” Clearly, $10 million is laughably inadequate for SAARC to do anything of note, considering the other South Asian states are too poor and hard hit by the economic downturn to proportionately ante up funds. By way of providing perspective, the Egyptian government has committed $6.7 billion to tackle the danger from COVID-19. That’s the scale of monies required for India to make a mark in South Asia. But why is it imperative that India do so?
Primarily because it is a God-sent opportunity for Delhi to reverse India’s strategic slide into near irrelevance in the 21st Century, and realize its policy priority of cultivating warm and intimate relations with the neighbouring states based on their plugging into the Indian economy and taking their social, political and cultural bearings from India to which they are all organically linked. This is actually easier done than said because proclaiming this as India’s policy aim and intent would, in this age of sensitive nationalism, instantly turn off these countries, get their gander up!
The anti-Carona effort is the wedge in the door that needs to be quickly widened with offers of public and private sector investment in industry and infrastructure, help in setting up transportation and communication networks, in the facilitation of increased trade, of Indian-made armaments, and of credit lines for these purposes. Pakistan’s reluctant participation in the collective anti-Carona effort can be translated into formal and informal dialogues to resolve outstanding disputes. Sir Creek, Siachen, and even Kashmir may be nettlesome issues but their resolution is possible if Islamabad is offered a mega economic and trade deal it cannot refuse. In this context, the abrogation of Article 370 is in no way an obstacle because it mirrors the status accorded the so-called “Azad Kashmir” by Islamabad. The whole can be rendered doubly attractive specifically to GHQ, Rawalpindi, if conjoined to substantive military steps taken unilaterally by Delhi, such as the removal of all Indian short range nuclear-warheaded missiles from the western border, and the rationalizing of army’s three strike corps into a single composite armoured-mechanized corps plus several independent armoured brigades.
It is moves I have long advocated as being able to conclusively prove India’s peaceful intent and bonafides and to seed mutual trust — the essential foundation for normalcy in relations with Pakistan. Good India-Pakistan relations would presage a pacified South Asia, which is a must for India to step up as a great power and credible counterpoise to China in the Indian Ocean, the Gulf region, in Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Surely, keeping the larger national good in mind, this is big enough prize and motivation for Modi to sidestep his ingrained anti-Pakistanism, and to convert his Carona initiative by the above means into hard strategic leverage and a raised status for India.