Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

Test of regional solidarity lies ahead


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much.

Mains level : Paper 2- Prospects of revival of SAARC and India's leadership in the aftermath of COVID-19.


If PM Modi’s gesture to SAARC is to go some way towards a solution for the region, India, which will be picking up the pieces itself, must have something to offer to its neighbours.


  • Not a viable option: Since 2014, when the last SAARC summit was held in Kathmandu, India had made it more than clear that it no longer considers the South Asia grouping viable.
    • It was Islamabad’s turn to host the next summit in 2016, but the Uri attack intervened, and India refused to attend.
  • SAARC in limbo: Under the SAARC charter, the summit cannot be held even if a single nation stays away, and the grouping has remained in limbo since.
  • India’s increased engagement with other groups: In the last five years, India has actively sought to isolate Pakistan in the region.
    • India hyped up its engagement with other regional groupings such as-
    • BBIN (Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal), and
    • BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), which includes Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan.

How to read the sudden resurrection of SAARC?

  • Officials denied revival speculation: Despite hopes that this might be a SAARC revival, officials have discounted such speculation. That would require India to climb down from its position that Pakistan has taken verifiable steps to address India’s concerns on terrorism. There is no evidence at all that Delhi is about to do that.
  • No hope of move from Pakistan: It would need Pakistan to turn over a new leaf, stop playing with free radicals to use against India, in Kashmir or elsewhere when the time is ripe. Neither is about to happen.

No cooperative response in the works

  • First to call the neighbours: At a time when leaders across the globe appeared to be engrossed in the COVID-19 calamity of their own nations, Modi was the first to think of calling the neighbours.
  • Why cooperation among neighbours matter? Almost all South Asian countries are bound to each other by land borders and frequent inter-travel, and it is important that the region liaises to stop the disease from spreading across the Subcontinent.
  • Countries not willing to learn from each other: It was a trifle disappointing, therefore, that beyond the experience of witnessing a unique video summit, there is not much to suggest that a cooperative response is in the works.
    • There is no evidence that each country is willing to learn from the other’s experiences, or public health systems, or that we are tracking each other’s data and responses.
  • What were the proposals made in the summit? Two proposals were made:
    • One by India for a regional fund that Modi has generously offered to put aside $10 million for.
    • Pakistan proposed the setting up of a diseases surveillance centre for sharing real-time data. India has said it would prepare emergency response task forces to help out the member countries in need.
    • Delhi is said to be in the process of sending medical supplies worth $1 million to Nepal, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Maldives, which sounds like a fraction of what they may eventually require.
    • Pakistan has said China will give it testing kits, protective gear and portable ventilators, as well as a cash grant for a state-of-the-art isolation centre.
    • Beijing, eager to live down its image as the point of origin for this global mayhem, will make the same offer to other South Asian countries soon.

What were the lessons India need to learn from video-summit?

  • Indian need to go beyond Big Brother events: If the intention was to try and restore the aura Prime Minister Modi enjoyed in the region at the beginning of NDA-1, as some have not improbably suggested, it has to go beyond this Big Boss event.
    • The video summit saw polite attendance by all SAARC leaders, with the exception of Pakistan which sent its health minister.
    • But going by the scant media coverage that the summit, the first after six years, received in the neighbourhood, no one is holding their breath.
  • India has lost heft it once held: For many countries in the region now, India has lost the heft it used to have in the last century.
    • A proximate reason is that it is no longer an economic powerhouse nor holds the promise of being one in the near future.
    • The other reason is that it no longer offers itself as a model nation, pulling together its complex diversities, pluralism and political ideologies in a broad-minded vision.
  • CAA factor and changing the perception of India: The real damage to India’s standing was, of course, done by the badmouthing of the Muslim countries in the neighbourhood to justify the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019.
    • Larger image of themselves: Seen from the eyes of other countries in South Asia today, India is now just a larger version of themselves and their political and economic dysfunctions.
    • While additionally possessing and wielding the instruments to be vengeful and punitive in its foreign policy — including arm-twisting them now and then in its constant quest to isolate Pakistan.


  • The real test for India lies ahead: The real test of Modi’s leadership of South Asia, and by extension of India’s, will come after the pandemic subsides, when each country has to deal with what remains of its economy.
    • The tourism economy of Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka would have been crushed by then. Pakistan will be worse off than it is now.
    • There will be more unemployment and hardship everywhere in the region.
    • Some of these countries will inevitably turn to China.
  • India must have something to offer as a solution: If Modi’s gesture is to go some way as part of the solution for the region, India, which will be picking up the pieces itself, must have something to offer to its South Asian neighbours six months to a year down the line.
    • Is there such a plan? Can India put aside the prejudices of its domestic communalism, and its own economic woes, demonstrate large-heartedness to all the countries of the region, irrespective of what religion its people follow, irrespective of its historical hostilities with at least one?
    • There may be more economic refugees knocking on India’s doors, apart from a host of other inter-regional problems.

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