Retrofitting SAARC

Not much hope that the 8-member South Asian bloc can be revived even after the Indian elections

Illustration: SUBHAS RAI

There is cautious optimism after the Indian election results that the semi-comatose South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) can be revived.

The Kathmandu-headquartered bloc has been in limbo since November 2016, when Pakistan was set to host its 19th Summit, but India pulled out after an attack on its military in Kashmir which it blamed on Pakistan.

"Bilateral grievances should not stand in the way of advancing the cause of a regional organisation,” says Arjun Bahadur Thapa, who was Secretary General in 2014 when the last SAARC summit was held in Kathmandu. ”India’s foreign policy is not dictated by politicians, but by its powerful bureaucracy. Modi's decreased political clout may dent his confidence on the global stage, but will most likely not impact India’s stance towards Pakistan, or SAARC."

In the past 10 years, New Delhi has bypassed SAARC to pivot eastwards through overlapping sub-regional fora like BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal Initiative) and BIMSTEC (the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) that includes Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. 

The new SAARC Secretary General Golam Sarwar from Bangladesh has been touring South Asian capitals to try to resuscitate the regional organisation. This week he was in Colombo, after visiting Islamabad and New Delhi.

“To interpret the recent elections in India as a defeat of the BJP and the weakening of PM Modi will be a faulty approach to suggest a revival of the SAARC process,” says Nishchal Pandey at the Centre for South Asian Studies in Kathmandu. “India pays the biggest chunk of the annual SAARC budget and it is therefore also in the interest of Indian taxpayers to see that a Summit is held."

Indeed, as long as SAARC is held hostage by geopolitics, not much may change. New Delhi prefers bilateral dealings rather than multilateral ones, and India-Pakistan tension as well as turmoil in Afghanistan have kept SAARC in limbo. 

“Modi 3.0 has great power ambitions for India including redefining India’s identity on the world stage,” Pandey adds. “But this will not be achieved unless long-standing disputes are resolved.” 

SAARC Secretariat NT
SAARC Secretariat in Kathmandu. Photo: SUMAN NEPALI

India’s preference for BIMSTEC serves to strengthen ties with ASEAN, and also offset China’s growing influence in the region. Other countries like Nepal which are members of both SAARC and BIMSTEC have also been pulled along by New Delhi. 

“For Nepal, SAARC seems to have taken a back seat to partnerships like BBIN and BIMSTEC as we look towards sub-regional alliances rather than regional ones,” said Nepali Congress leader Minendra Rijal at a geopolitical conference in Kathmandu last week. “But we do not get to hear a lot from the Pakistanis, who have a very different perspective on SAARC.”

After being elected for the first time in 2014, Modi invited all SAARC leaders to his inauguration, announcing India's ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. For his second swearing-in in 2019, he invited only BIMSTEC members, extending India’s regional policy to ‘Neighbourhood First and Act East’. This month, Modi invited neighbouring country leaders, but added Mauritius and Seychelles to the list, indicating another geopolitical priority: the Indian Ocean.

“Global challenges demand collective action,” Secretary General Sarwar told a recent Indian Ocean Conference in Perth. “Investing in international partnership, diplomacy, and development initiatives foster peace, stability and shared prosperity.”

Pessimists say SAARC is as good as defunct, but optimists still see a role for the group since many of the region’s problems can only be resolved through cross border collaboration in improving connectivity, trade, poverty, and coping with the climate crisis.

Other foreign policy experts see a weaker BJP forcing Modi to mitigate attacks on minorities and the media at home, but may compensate by being more hawkish on Pakistan and in the neighbourhood.

As current chair and the site of its headquarters, Nepal should be playing a catalytic role, says Pandey: “It is the obligation of the chair to ensure that the organisation is not dismantled through inaction and indecision. We must be able to impress upon the Indian leadership that it has been a decade since Nepal has been chair and we need to earnestly pass on the baton to the next country.” 

Bangladesh was a prime mover of SAARC when it was founded in 1985 in Dhaka. Zafar Sobhan, founding editor of the Dhaka Tribune brought his family for a holiday to Nepal this week and told us: “The disintegration of SAARC has been a tragedy for all South Asian countries. It would be in everyone's interests to revive it, but with the prevailing political winds in India, I don't see it happening. We are all the poorer for this loss, both literally and figuratively.” 

Shristi Karki


Shristi Karki is a correspondent with Nepali Times. She joined Nepali Times as an intern in 2020, becoming a part of the newsroom full-time after graduating from Kathmandu University School of Arts. Karki has reported on politics, current affairs, art and culture.