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Sep 5, 2012

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Travails of SAARC

            With key SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) countries facing internal political challenges the travails of this regional grouping of eight countries, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and the Maldives have come to the fore. While SAARC was modeled on success of the Association of East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the European Union (EU) both these formulations are facing challenges of centrifugalism in some form.

SAARC received a boost after the Thimpu Summit in 2010 when leaders asked India and Pakistan to patch up differences in the interest of regional stability. It appears that while both New Delhi and Islamabad have come closer since then the organization is losing momentum due to political challenges faced by Maldives and Nepal the incumbent and prospective chairs of SAARC respectively. This is likely to result in postponement of the SAARC summit normally held in November and preparations for which commence in June-July. Given that there have been no major moves in this direction; there is likelihood of scrapping of the 18th Summit or a nominal symbolic affair with limited outcome.

Ironically Maldives the incumbent SAARC chair saw political turmoil almost immediately after the Summit was held in November 2011 in Addu the southern atolls which are the home of the now deposed President Mohamed Nasheed. Trouble started with vandalizing of SAARC monuments in Addu by conservative extremists stating that these were idols and against religious practice in the country.  From then on to February when Mr Nasheed handed over power to the Vice President Waheed and commenced a mass agitation against what he termed as a, “soft coup,” it has been a turbulent period for Maldives. The SAARC Secretary General Dhiyana Saeed from the country resigned in January. The new secretary general, Ahmed Saleem took over in March. The Secretary General obviously has a pivotal role to play in organizing the summit apart from other activities. However with limited direction from the SAARC chair the Maldives government tormented by political troubles he has a tough task to perform.

            The other key country is Nepal which is to hold the summit. Nepal is having a Caretaker Government since June this year headed by Baburam Bhattarai. The country is in throes of intense internal politicking with no prospects of a stable government in the near future. Nepal is required to propose a date for the Summit but has not been able to do so thus far indicating that there is apparently no time or inclination for SAARC in Kathmandu, which incidentally hosts the Secretariat as well.

            The main problem of SAARC however may be lack of leadership. Germany and France provide leadership in EU, Indonesia in ASEAN.  While India the largest state in all respects with a common land border with all SAARC countries should be the natural leader, rivalry with Pakistan and New Delhi’s lack of appetite for risks has limited it from revving up this grouping.

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