Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

How India’s Gati Shakti Plan can have an impact beyond its borders


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Gati Shakti plan

Mains level : Paper 2- Gati Shakti plan's impact beyond border


The Gati Shakti National Master Plan will have an important economic multiplier effect at home, it must also be leveraged to have an external impact by aligning it with India’s regional and global connectivity efforts.

Main components of the Gati Shakti National Master Plan

  • The Gati Shakti plan has three main components, all focused on domestic coordination.
  • Increase information sharing: The plan seeks to increase information sharing with a new technology platform between various ministries at the Union and state levels.
  • Reduce logistics’ costs: It focuses on giving impetus to multi-modal transportation to reduce logistics’ costs and strengthen last-mile connectivity in India’s hinterland or border regions.
  • Analytical tool: The third component includes an analytical decision-making tool to disseminate project-related information and prioritise key infrastructure projects.
  • This aims to ensure transparency and time-bound commitments to investors.

How Gati Shakti Plan can strengthen India’s economic ties with its neighbours

  • The plan will automatically generate positive effects to deepen India’s economic ties with Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, as well as with Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean region.
  • India’s investment in roads, ports, inland waterways or new customs procedures generate positive externalities for these neighbours, who are keen to access the growing Indian consumer market.
  • Any reduction in India’s domestic logistics costs brings immediate benefits to the northern neighbour, given that 98 per cent of Nepal’s total trade transits through India and about 65 per cent of Nepal’s trade is with India.
  • In 2019, trade between Bhutan and Bangladesh was eased through a new multimodal road and waterway link via Assam.
  • The new cargo ferry service with the Maldives, launched last year, has lowered the costs of trade for the island state.
  • And under the South Asia Subregional Economic Cooperation Programme, India’s investments in multimodal connectivity on the eastern coast is reconnecting India with the Bay of Bengal and Southeast Asia through integrated rail, port and shipping systems.
  • Whether it is the alignment of a cross-border railway, the location of a border check post, or the digital system chosen for customs and immigration processes, India’s connectivity investments at home will have limited effects unless they are coordinated with those of its neighbours and other regional partners.
  • While India recently joined the Transports Internationaux Routiers (TIR) convention, which facilitates cross-border customs procedures, none of its neighbouring countries in the east has signed on to it.

Suggestions for Gati Shakti Plan to have maximum external effect

  • First, India will have to deepen bilateral consultations with its neighbours to gauge their connectivity strategies and priorities.
  • Given political and security sensitivities, India will require diplomatic skills to reassure its neighbours and adapt to their pace and political economy context.
  • A second way is for India to work through regional institutions and platforms. SAARC’s ambitious regional integration plans of the 2000s are now defunct, so Delhi has shifted its geo-economic orientation eastwards.
  • The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) has got new momentum, but there is also progress on the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) Initiative.
  • Finally, India can also boost the Gati Shakti plan’s external impact by cooperating more closely with global players who are keen to support its strategic imperative to give the Indo-Pacific an economic connectivity dimension.
  • This includes the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, but also Japan, the US, Australia, EU and ASEAN.


Gati Shakti plan must also leveraged to have an external impact by aligning it with India’s regional and global connectivity efforts.

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Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

Why the SAARC meeting was cancelled


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : SAARC

Mains level : Success and failures of SAARC

A meeting of foreign ministers from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries, which was set to be held in New York has been cancelled.


  • The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is the regional intergovernmental organization and geopolitical union of states in South Asia.
  • Its member states are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
  • The SAARC comprises 3% of the world’s area, 21% of the world’s population and 4.21% (US$3.67 trillion) of the global economy, as of 2019.
  • The SAARC was founded in Dhaka on 8 December 1985. Its secretariat is based in Kathmandu, Nepal.
  • The organization promotes development of economic and regional integration. It launched the South Asian Free Trade Area in 2006.
  • The SAARC maintains permanent diplomatic relations at the United Nations as an observer and has developed links with multilateral entities, including the European Union.

Formation of SAARC

  • After the USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the security situation in South Asia rapidly deteriorated. In response, the foreign ministers of the initial seven members met in Colombo in 1981.
  • At the meeting, Bangladesh proposed forming a regional association that would meet to discuss matters such as security and trade.
  • While most of the countries present were in favour of the proposal, India and Pakistan were sceptical.
  • Eventually, both countries relented and in 1983 in Dhaka, joined the other five nations in signing the Declaration.

What has SAARC done so far

  • Despite its lofty ambitions, SAARC has not become a regional association in the mould of the European Union or the African Union.
  • Its member states are plagued by internal divisions, most notably the conflict between India and Pakistan.
  • This in turn has hampered its ability to form comprehensive trade agreements or to meaningfully collaborate on areas such as security, energy and infrastructure.
  • The 18th and last SAARC summit was held in 2014 with Pakistan scheduled to host the 19th summit in 2016.
  • Many nations pulled out of the summit, citing fears of regional insecurity caused by Pakistan and a lack of a conducive environment for the talks.

Limited success to count

  • Despite these setbacks, SAARC has achieved a modicum of success.
  • It has provided a platform for representatives from member countries to meet and discuss important issues, something that may have been challenging through bilateral discussions.
  • India and Pakistan for example would struggle to publicly justify a meeting when tensions between the two are particularly high, but representatives from both countries could come together under the banner of SAARC.
  • The bloc has also made some headway in signing agreements related to climate change, food security and combatting the Covid-19 crisis.
  • It has the potential to do far more but that is contingent upon cooperation on key issues between member states.

Why was the recent meet cancelled?

Ans. Pakistan’s insistence to include the Taliban

  • The member states are unable to agree upon the participation of Afghanistan, with Pakistan and India in particular at loggerheads over the issue.
  • After Pakistan objected to the participation of any official from the previous Ghani administration, SAARC members reportedly agreed to keep an “empty chair” as a symbolic representation of Afghanistan.
  • However, Islamabad later insisted that the Taliban be allowed to send its representative to the summit, a notion that all of the other member states rejected.
  • After no consensus could be formed, Nepal, the ‘host’ of the summit, officially cancelled the meeting.

Why did countries object?

Ans. Taliban is not a legitimate govt

  • The Taliban has not been recognised as the official government of Afghanistan by any SAARC countries barring Pakistan.
  • Several top Taliban leaders are blacklisted by the US and/or designated as international terrorists.
  • Senior leaders who are not blacklisted are known for supporting terrorist activities or affiliating with terrorist organisations.
  • Allowing Taliban to represent Afghanistan in SAARC would legitimise the group and serve as a formal recognition of their right to govern.
  • Apart from Pakistan, which has close ties to the Taliban, particularly its violent subgroup, the Haqqani Network, none of the other SAARC members recognise the Taliban.

Why nations should not recognize the Taliban?

  • PM Modi has referred to the Taliban as a non-inclusive government, warning other nations to think before accepting the regime in Afghanistan.
  • SAARC members are deeply aware of the threat of spillover terrorism from Afghanistan under the Taliban regime, with Bangladesh in particular, concerned with the effect it may have on extremism.
  • Developments in Afghanistan could lead to uncontrolled flow of drugs, illegal weapons and human trafficking.


  • With Pakistan headfast in its support for the Taliban and the rest of SAARC weary to acknowledge the group, any future summit is unlikely until the issue has been resolved.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

[pib] Forum of the Election Management Bodies of South Asia (FEMBoSA)


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : FEMBoSA

Mains level : Not Much

The Election Commission of India has handed over the Chair of FEMBoSA to the Election Commission of Bhutan for 2021-22.

What is FEMBoSA?

  • Forum of the Election Management Bodies of South Asia (FEMBoSA) was established at the 3rd Conference of Heads of Election Management Bodies (EMBs) of SAARC Countries in 2012.
  • The forum aims to increase mutual cooperation with respect to the common interests of the SAARC’s EMBs.
  • The Forum has eight Member Election Management Bodies from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.
  • The Election Commission of India was the latest Chair of the Forum (now Bhutan).

Its establishment

  • The first meeting of the representatives of Election Management Bodies of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal and Pakistan was held in Dhaka, Bangladesh in the year 2010.
  • It was then decided at the conclusion that an organization representing those countries should be established.
  • Consequently, annual meets were held in the member countries and the charter for the organization also was adopted with the aim of fulfilling the objectives of the organization.
  • Since the creation of FEMBoSA, Annual Meetings were held in Pakistan (2011), in India (2012), in Bhutan (2013), in Nepal (2014),  in Sri Lanka (2015), in Maldives (2016), in Afghanistan (2017) and in Bangladesh(2018).

Objectives of FEMBOSA

  • Promote contact among the Election Management Bodies of SAARC countries
  • Facilitate the appropriate exchange of experience and expertise among members
  • Share experiences with a view to learning from each other
  • Foster efficiency and effectiveness in conducting the free, fair, transparent, and participative election

Significant activities under FEMBoSA

  • Member organizations celebrate National Voter’s Day in a calendar year in their respective countries
  • An initiative of establishing South Asia Institute for Democracy and Electoral Studies (SAIDES) in Nepal
  • In order to increase knowledge related to elections, take initiatives to include voter education in the school-level textbooks of their respective countries
  • Implementation of recommendations of South Asian Disabilities Organizations for the inclusion of disabled people in the electoral system and the creation of a suitable election environment

Back2Basics: SAARC

  •  In 1985, at the height of the Cold War, leaders of South Asian nations — namely Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka — created a regional forum.
  • The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was established with the goal of contributing “to mutual trust, understanding, and appreciation of one another’s problems.”
  • Afghanistan was admitted as a member in 2007.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations



From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : SAARC countries

Mains level : Paper 2- Relevance of SAARC


Despite the framework SAARC provides for cooperation amongst South Asian nations, it has remained sidelined and dormant since its 18th summit of 2014 in Kathmandu. No alternative capable of bringing together South Asian countries for mutually beneficial diplomacy has emerged.

Common challenges facing South Asia

  • The region is beset with unsettled territorial disputes, as well as trans-border criminal and subversive activities and cross-border terrorism.
  • The region also remains a theatre for ethnic, cultural, and religious tensions and rivalries besides a current rise in ultra-nationalism
  • Nuclear-armed neighbours India and Pakistan are at loggerheads.
  • US military withdrawal from Afghanistan has fuelled fears of intensification of these trends.

Significance of SAARC

  • As the largest regional cooperation organisation, SAARC’s importance in stabilising and effectively transforming the region is becoming increasingly self-evident.
  • SAARC is needed as institutional scaffolding to allow for the diplomacy and coordination that is needed between member-states in order to adequately address the numerous threats and challenges the region faces.
  • Though SAARC’s charter prohibits bilateral issues at formal forums, SAARC summits provide a unique, informal window — the retreat — for leaders to meet without aides and chart future courses of action.
  • The coming together of leaders, even at the height of tensions, in a region laden with congenital suspicions, misunderstandings, and hostility is a significant strength of SAARC that cannot be overlooked.
  • In March last year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi seized the Covid-19 crisis and utilised SAARC’s seal to convene a video conference of SAARC leaders.
  • Such capacity to bring member-states together shows the potential power of SAARC.

What role SAARC can play in Afghanistan

  • Commitment to get rid of terrorism: The third SAARC summit in 1987 adopted a Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism and updated it in 2004 with the signing of an additional protocol.
  • These instruments demonstrate the collective commitment to rid the region of terror and promote regional peace, stability, and prosperity.
  • Using the network of institutions: In 36 years of existence, SAARC has developed a dense network of institutions, linkages, and mechanisms.
  • SAARC members are among the top troop-contributing countries to UN peacekeeping missions.
  • Joint peacekeeping force: With the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, a joint peacekeeping force from the SAARC region under the UN aegis could be explored to fill the power vacuum that would otherwise be filled by terrorist and extremist forces.

Consider the question “What role SAARC can play in stabilising the region after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan? Is SAARC still relevant for the region?”


Allowing SAARC to become dysfunctional and irrelevant greatly distorts our ability to address the realities and mounting challenges facing SAARC nations.

Back2Basics: About SAARC

  •  In 1985, at the height of the Cold War, leaders of South Asian nations — namely Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka — created a regional forum.
  • The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was established with the goal of contributing “to mutual trust, understanding and appreciation of one another’s problems.”
  • Afghanistan was admitted as a member in 2007.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations



From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much

Mains level : Paper 2- Reviving BIMSTEC

More than two decades after its formation, BIMSTEC still remains a work in progress. And it has many obstacles to overcome. The article highlights challenges and progress made so far.

Background of BIMSTEC

  • The foreign ministers of BIMSTEC (the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) met virtually on April 1.
  • It was established as a grouping of four nations — India, Thailand, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka — through the Bangkok Declaration of 1997 to promote rapid economic development.
  • BIMSTEC was expanded later to include three more countries — Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan.
  • It moved at a leisurely pace during its first 20 years with only three summits held and a record of modest achievements.

Growing significance

  • BIMSTEC suddenly received special attention when India chose to treat it as a more practical instrument for regional cooperation over a faltering SAARC.
  • The BIMSTEC Leaders’ Retreat, followed by their Outreach Summit with the BRICS leaders in Goa in October 2016, drew considerable international limelight to the low-profile regional grouping.
  • At the fourth leaders’ summit in Kathmandu in 2018, a plan for institutional reform and renewal that would encompass economic and security cooperation was devised.
  • It took the important decision to craft a charter to provide BIMSTEC with a more formal and stronger foundation.
  • The shared goal now is to head towards “a Peaceful, Prosperous and Sustainable Bay of Bengal Region”.

Why the recent summit is important

  • In the recent virtual summit, the foreign ministers cleared the draft for the BIMSTEC charter.
  • They endorsed the rationalisation of sectors and sub-sectors of activity, with each member-state serving as a lead for the assigned areas of special interest.
  • The ministers also conveyed their support for the Master Plan for Transport Connectivity.
  • Preparations have been completed for the signing of three agreements:
  • 1) Mutual legal assistance in criminal matters.
  • 2) Cooperation between diplomatic academies.
  • 3) The establishment of a technology transfer facility in Colombo.

Lack of progress on trade

  • In the recent deliberation, there was no reference to the lack of progress on the trade and economic dossier.
  • A January 2018 study by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry had suggested that BIMSTEC urgently needed a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement to be a real game-changer.
  • Ideally, it should cover trade in goods, services and investment; promote regulatory harmonisation; adopt policies that develop regional value chains, and eliminate non-tariff barriers.
  • Also lacking was an effort to enthuse and engage the vibrant business communities of these seven countries.
  • Over 20 rounds of negotiations to operationalise the BIMSTEC Free Trade Area Framework Agreement, signed in 2004, are yet to bear fruit.


  • Much has been achieved in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief and security, including counterterrorism, cybersecurity, and coastal security cooperation.
  • India has led through constant focus and follow-up.
  • While national business chambers are yet to be optimally engaged with the BIMSTEC project, the academic and strategic community has shown ample enthusiasm through the BIMSTEC Network of Policy Think Tanks and other fora.


  • A strong BIMSTEC presupposes cordial and tension-free bilateral relations among all its member-states.
  • However, there has been tensions in India-Nepal, India-Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh-Myanmar ties in recent years.
  • Second, uncertainties over SAARC hovers, complicating matters. Both Kathmandu and Colombo want the SAARC summit revived, even as they cooperate within BIMSTEC, with diluted zeal.
  • Third, China’s decisive intrusion in the South-Southeast Asian space has cast dark shadows.
  • Finally, the military coup in Myanmar and the continuation of popular resistance resulting in a protracted impasse have produced a new set of challenges.

Consider the question “What are the challenges BIMSTEC faces in emerging as an alternative to the SAARC? What are its achievements?”


The grouping needs to reinvent itself, possibly even rename itself as ‘The Bay of Bengal Community’. It should consider holding regular annual summits. Only then will its leaders convince the region about their strong commitment to the new vision they have for this unique platform linking South Asia and Southeast Asia.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

Reclaiming SAARC


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :


Mains level : Paper 2- Revival of SAARC

The article examines the issues are making it difficult to function and suggests its revival.

Dysfunctional SAARC and its implications

  • The year 2020 marked the sixth year since the leaders of the eight nations that make up SAARC were able to meet.
  • India-Pakistan issues have impacted other meetings of SAARC as well.
  • Inactive SAARC is making it easier for member countries, as well as international agencies, to deal with South Asia as a fragmented group.
  • India’s refusal to allow Pakistan to host the SAARC summit is akin to giving Pakistan a ‘veto’ over the entire SAARC process.
  • The events of 2020, particularly the novel coronavirus pandemic and China’s aggressions at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) shone a new spotlight on this mechanism.
  • This should make the government review its position and reverse that trend.

Reasons India should review its position on SAARC

1) India attend other forums with Pakistan

  • India continued to attend Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meetings along with their Pakistani counterparts.
  • While China’s incursions in Ladakh constituted the larger concern in the year, India did not decline to attend meetings with the Chinese leadership at the SCO, the Russia-India-China trilateral, the G-20 and others.
  • No concerns over territorial claims stopped the government from engaging with Nepal either.

2) Pandemic caused challenges

  • Reviving SAARC is crucial to countering the common challenges brought about by the pandemic.
  • Studies have shown that South Asia’s experience of the pandemic has been unique from other regions of the world.
  • This experience needs to be studied further in a comprehensive manner in order to counter future pandemics.
  • Such an approach is also necessary for the distribution and further trials needed for vaccines, as well as developing cold storage chains for the vast market that South Asia represents.

3) Impact of the pandemic on economies of South Asia

  • Apart from the overall GDP slowdown, global job cuts which will lead to an estimated 22% fall in revenue for migrant labour and expatriates from South Asian countries.
  • World Bank have suggested that South Asian countries work as a collective to set standards for labour from the region, and also to promoting a more intra-regional, transnational approach towards tourism, citing successful examples including the ‘East Africa Single Joint Visa’ system.
  • In the longer term, there will be a shift in priorities towards health security, food security, and job security, that will also benefit from an “all-of” South Asia approach.
  • While it will be impossible for countries to cut themselves off from the global market entirely, regional initiatives will become the “Goldilocks option”.

4) Dealing with the China challenge

  • In dealing with the challenge from China too, both at India’s borders and in its neighbourhood, a unified South Asian platform remains India’s most potent countermeasure.
  • At the border, tensions with Pakistan and Nepal amplify the threat perception from China, while other SAARC members (minus Bhutan), all of whom are Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) partners of China will be hard placed to help individually.
  • Significantly, from 2005-14, China actually wanted to join SAARC.
  • Despite the rebuff, China has continued to push its way into South Asia.


Seen through Beijing’s prism, India’s SAARC neighbourhood may be a means to contain India, with the People’s Liberation Army strategies against India over the LAC at present, or in conjunction with Pakistan or Nepal at other disputed fronts in the future. New Delhi must find its own prism with which to view its South Asian neighbourhood as it should be: a unit that has a common future, and as a force-multiplier for India’s ambitions on the global stage.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

South Asian University


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : South Asian University

Mains level : SAARC and its fading relevance

The Delhi-based South Asian University, established by all eight SAARC countries, has not had a president for over a year, while its executive council and governing board have not met for almost two and three years respectively.

Note the features of SAARC, ASEAN and East Asia Summit.

South Asian University

  • South Asian University (SAU) is an International University sponsored by the eight Member States of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
  • The eight countries are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
  • India, as the host and the largest country in the SAARC group, bore the entire capital cost for setting up the university, and also pays 50% of the operational costs.
  • SAU attracts students predominantly from all the eight SAARC countries, although students from other continents also attend.
  • There is a country quota system for admission of students. Every year SAU conducts admission test at multiple centres in all the eight countries.
  • The degrees of the university is recognised by all the member nations of the SAARC according to an inter-governmental agreement signed by the foreign ministers of the eight-member states.

Institution on failure

  • After a decade of existence, the university has yet to appoint a non-Indian president, despite rules stipulating a rotation among the member countries.
  • At a time when the Union government is trying to encourage international education in India, an existing international institution is facing a crisis of leadership.

A matter of reluctance

  • According to the agreement signed by all the SAARC countries, the first president should have been from India, and then rotated among the other countries in alphabetical order.
  • So the next president should be from the Maldives.
  • But the MEA has put an advertisement calling only for Indian applicants, but there has been no appointment after one year.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

Sharing Indo-Pacific vision in the region


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Indo-Pacific construct

Mains level : Paper 2- India's Indo-Pacific vision

 Where do we geographically place the Indo-Pacific?

  • Term “Indo-Pacific” has come into prominence in the past decade.
  • India has used it in joint statements with a series of partner countries, including but not limited to the United States, Australia, France, Indonesia, Japan, and of course the United Kingdom.
  • It figures in meetings with our ASEAN and has helped advance the Quad consultations.
  • Indian Foreign Ministry has recently set up an Indo-Pacific Division as well as an Oceania Division a sign of India’s commitment to this critical geography.
  • This has encouraged other countries to perceive and define the region in its full extent.
  • For India, the Indo-Pacific is that vast maritime space stretching from the western coast of North America to the eastern shores of Africa.
  • Today, more and more countries are aligning their definition of the Indo-Pacific with Indias.

Historical background

  • During the Cold War, the Indo-Pacific was divided into different spheres of influence and military theatres.
  • Whether it was the monsoon winds– or our maritime and trading history, we found it impossible to see the Horn of Africa and the Straits of Malacca on the other as disconnected.
  • The first for this is that the Indian peninsula, which thrusts into the Indian Ocean and gives us two magnificent coasts and near limitless maritime horizons to both our east and our west.
  • Monks and merchants, culture and cargo have travelled from India on those waters, to our east, west and south.
  • India’s great religious traditions, such as Buddhism, spread far and wide in the Indo-Pacific.
  • These experiences are our past and are our future; these experiences determine our concept of the Indo-Pacific.

Why is the Indo-Pacific crucial?

  • The interconnectedness of the Indo-Pacific is finally coming into full play.
  • A motivating factor is the region’s emergence as a driver of international trade and well-being.
  • The Indo-Pacific ocean system carries an estimated 65 per cent of world trade and contributes 60 per cent of global GDP.
  • Ninety per cent of India’s international trade travels on its waters.
  • For us, and for many others, the shift in the economic trajectory from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific has been hugely consequential.
  • The rise of China and the imperative for a global rebalancing have added to the mix.
  • A rules-based international order is achievable only with a rules-based Indo-Pacific.

India’s Indo-Pacific strategy

  • India’s Indo-Pacific strategy was enunciated in 2018 as the SAGAR doctrine.
  •  SAGAR is an acronym for “Security and Growth for All in the Region”.
  • This aspiration depends on securing end-to-end supply chains in the region; no disproportionate dependence on a single country; and ensuring prosperity for all stakeholder nations.
  • An Indo-Pacific guided by norms and governed by rules, with freedom of navigation, open connectivity, and respect for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all states, is an article of faith for India.
  • Using this Initiative, India plans to support the building of a rules-based regional architecture resting on seven pillars. These are:1) Maritime security
    2) Maritime ecology
    3) Maritime resources
    4) Capacity building and resource sharing
    5) Disaster risk reduction and management
    6) Science, technology and academic cooperation
    7) Trade connectivity and maritime transport
  • We have sought to strengthen security and freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific by becoming a net security provider – in the Gulf of Aden.
  • Sharing what we can, in equipment, training and exercises, we have built relationships with partner countries across the region.
  • In the past six years, India has provided coastal surveillance radar systems to half a dozen nations – Mauritius, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Myanmar and Bangladesh.
  • All of these countries also use Indian patrol boats, as do Mozambique and Tanzania.
  •  Mobile training teams have been deputed to 11 countries.
  • Located just outside New Delhi, the Indian Navy’s Information Fusion Centre for the Indian Ocean Region has enhanced maritime domain awareness among partner countries.
  • India has also promoted and contributed to infrastructure, connectivity, economic projects and supply chains in the region.

Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief

  • Notable humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) missions in the Indo-Pacific in recent years have included Operation Rahat in Yemen in 2015.
  • Whether it was the cyclone in Sri Lanka in 2016 or deaths and large-scale displacement of people that occurred in Madagascar in January this year, Indian assistance and an Indian ship have never been far away.
  • The Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI)is intrinsic to India’s regional and global commitment to taking on climate change.


Whatever the navigation map, the fact that the Indo-Pacific is the 21st century’s locus of political and security concerns and competition, of growth and development, and of technology incubation and innovation is indisputable.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

Challenges India faces in managing relations in neighbourhood


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much

Mains level : Paper 2- India and relations with its neighbours

The article analyses the inherent challenges India faces in managing good relations with its neighbours.

Duality challenge

  • Even for the Britishers, it was an unceasing struggle to sustain its primacy in the region.
  • The notion of regional primacy certainly persisted in the Nehru era.
  • Primacy was hard to sustain after Independence even within the immediate neighbourhood.

Five reasons stand out

1) Partition of the subcontinent

  • The problems generated by the great division of the Subcontinent on religious lines continue to animate the region.
  • Partition created the challenges of settling boundaries, sharing river-waters, protecting the rights of minorities, and easing the flow of goods and people.
  • The burden of the Subcontinent’s history is not easily discarded.

2) Unification of China

  • The unification of China amidst the Partition of India had profoundly transformed the geopolitical condition of India.
  • Beyond the bilateral territorial dispute in the Himalayas, the emergence of a large and purposeful state on India’s frontiers was going to be a problem given the ease with which it could constrain Delhi within the Subcontinent.

3) India’s choice in favour of de-globalisation

  • Independent India’s conscious choice in favour of de-globalisation led to a steady dissipation of commercial connectivity with the neighbours.
  •  India’s economic reorientation since the 1990s and the rediscovery of regionalism did open possibilities for reconnecting with its neighbours.
  • Delhi today is acutely aware of the need to revive regional connectivity.
  • There is much progress in recent years — note, for example, the recent launch of a ferry service to the Maldives or the reopening of inland waterways with Bangladesh.
  • Integrating India’s regional economic and foreign policy remains a major challenge-Consider the recent fiasco of onion exports to Bangladesh.

4) Rise of political agency in the neighbourhood

  • India ignores the rise of political agency among neighbourhood elites and mass politics that they need to manage.
  • Their imperatives don’t always coincide with those of Delhi.
  • It is unlikely that Delhi can completely insure itself against the intra-elite conflicts in the neighbourhood.

5) Influence of domestic politics on foreign policy

  • Can India persistently champion Tamil minority rights in Sri Lanka without incurring any costs with the Sinhala majority?
  • But asking that question takes us to India’s own domestic politics.
  • Can Delhi ignore sentiments in India’s Tamil Nadu in making its Sri Lanka policy?
  • Indian Prime Minister did not attend the Colombo Commonwealth Summit in 2013 because of the Tamil minority issue.
  • The Teesta Waters agreement was not concluded due to political reasons.

Ways forward

  • Timely responses to problems.
  • Preventing small issues from becoming big.
  • Aligning Delhi’s regional economic policy with India’s natural geographic advantages .
  • These are some important elements of any successful management of India’s perennial neighbourhood challenges.


There are no easy answers to the regional difficulties that trouble all governments in Delhi. The source of the problem lies in the deeply interconnected nature of South Asian societies administered by multiple sovereigns.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

Private: India must take the lead in South Asia

India has the privilege of being the South Asian region’s largest economy. COVID-19 has presented India with an unprecedented opportunity to help restructure the South Asian economy and regional cooperation. India can act as an engine of recovery for South Asia with a robust Multi-Sectoral plan for India’s COVID-19 diplomacy in the region.

Present dynamics of India’s relations:

  • India’s is facing trouble in relations not only with Pakistan, but also with Nepal, Bangladesh, possibly Sri Lanka, and pressure from China along the Tibet border.
  • The Maldives is possibly the only relatively bright spot for India in the region at present.

1. Nepal:

  • The Nepali PM K.P. Sharma Oli released a new political map claiming a part of Indian territory.
  • The new map shows the Kalapani, Limpiyadhura, and Lipulekh areas in the Indian state of Uttarakhand as belonging to Nepal.
  • India has rejected the claim, calling it contrary to the bilateral understanding to resolve the outstanding boundary issues through diplomatic dialogue.
  • The action followed large protests in Nepal after India opened an 80-kilometre road between Dharchula and Lipulekh in Uttarakhand, part of India’s effort to improve its infrastructure along the Tibet border.

2. Pakistan:

  • Pakistan has released a new political map, containing the whole of Jammu and Kashmir as well as parts of Gujarat.
  • As per Pakistan, the political map reflects their national aspiration and supports their stance on Kashmir dispute.
  • India has dismissed it as ridiculous assertions, calling it an exercise in political absurdity.

3. Bangladesh:

  • India is facing difficulties with Bangladesh. The India Citizenship Amendment Act(CAA), which is seen as targeting migrants from Bangladesh, has compromised the relations.
  • Bangladesh worries about possible reverse migration because there could be an exodus of Muslim migrants, especially from the northeastern state of Assam.

4. Sri Lanka:

  • The Rajapaksa clan is back in the office in Sri Lanka, and they are seen to be close to China.
  • There are reports that China is keen for Sri Lanka to distance itself from India and its other partners such as Japan.
  • The Sri Lankan government’s recent decision to halt a Japan-funded light rail project is one indicator that all is not well.
  • India-Japan collaboration on Sri Lanka’s East Container Terminal (ECT) project in Colombo is on shaky grounds.

5. Maldives:

  • India is making its pitch in the Maldives to restrict China’s growing influence.
  • India has announced a $500 million package to the Maldives to help it deal with the economic impact of the COVID-19.
  • India has announced new connectivity measures for the Maldives, including air, sea, intra-island and telecommunications, including the Greater Male Connectivity project.

Need for reorientation:

There are three fundamental reasons why India’s Neighbourhood First policy needs reorientation:

1. Pandemic depression:

  • There are dire warnings of a pandemic depression with growth projections worldwide revised heavily downward.
  • An estimated 42 million people within South Asia out of 100 million worldwide already driven back to extreme poverty.

2. Decline in export earnings:

  • The global slowdown is projected to hit South Asia’s major export earnings that include business services, textiles, transport equipment, labour and tourism.
  • This is compounded by a 22% decline in remittances to South Asia mainly from the Gulf, serious problems of finance and capital.
  • The supply nationalism has severely disrupted the global supply chains.
  • Supply nationalism: Countries put in place export restrictions with several instances of reserving key medical supplies for national use.

3. China’s influence:

  • China is using Covid-19 diplomacy to take several strategic initiatives vis-à-vis India’s neighbours in South Asia that require a commensurate response.

Way Forward:

The critical steps that India can take to invest in a robust regional action plan:

1. Strengthen SAFTA:

  • India could leverage regional trade, connectivity and investment, and strengthen the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) as a game-changer for the region.
  • Over 70% of South Asia’s population is dependent on subsistence agriculture and allied services.
  • India should lower the barriers to intra-regional food trade and encourage regional supply chains.

2. Boost Infrastructure:

  • The trade policy measures should be expanded from national to a regional level as an extension of India’s Neighbourhood First policy.
  • This includes freer transit trade through the region, development of supply and logistic chains, digital data interchange, single-window and digitised clearance systems, risk assessment and minimisation measures, wider use of trade lines of credit, denser connectivity, smoother cross-border inspections, and reduced transaction costs, using technology as a force multiplier.

3. Lead in the health sector:

  • India can lead in the sectors of health and food security.
  • PM Modi took a laudable initiative in convening a virtual summit of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) leaders on March 15 to deal with the pandemic.
  • However, its medium-term impact has fallen short of the kind of impact India made in response to the 2004 tsunami in the region.
  • It has also been overtaken by the more aggressive COVID-19 diplomacy of China that included Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and Nepal.
  • China has vowed the countries with offers of sharing its under development COVID-19 vaccine as early as September and duty-free access to its market.

4. Regional food security:

  • The regional food security is another area that India could take a major initiative in with an eye to the future.
  • Measures include using its ample food reserves of 83 million MT to deal with crises by augmenting access to the SAARC Food Bank that currently stands at less than 500,000 MT.

5. Ecological blueprint for South Asia:

  • The linkage between pandemics and ecology needs to be acknowledged.
  • India can provide an ecological blueprint for South Asia with a focus on the protection of biodiversity and dealing with the climate crisis.
  • The growing risk of the transmission of zoonotic diseases such as HIV, Ebola, SARS, H5N1 and Nipah virus underline the risks posed by habitat fragmentation, degradation and wet markets.

6. Multinational partnerships:

  • India can increase the capacity of sub-regional initiatives such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).
  • The border regions can be effective partners in shaping India’s regional engagement by steering sectoral regional dialogues on cross-border trade, transport and health.


  • PM Modi’s call for a regional response to the pandemic has been a laudable step. The opportunity to turn the crisis into an opportunity will depend on India’s willingness to co-design a collective road map for South Asia.
  • India can fuel its national recovery by being the economic engine of the neighbourhood. This is what is needed to meet the Indian aspirations of being a regional power and curb the Chinese influence in the region.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

Reviving SAARC


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : SAARC and BIMSTEC

Mains level : Paper 2- Indian-SAARC relations

To counter a hegemon, showing a united front helps. Drawing on this maxim, India has to work on improving its standing in the region. And reviving SAARC could be a right step in this direction. So, why SAARC is in hibernation in the first place? Where India could start? Read to know…

China challenging India’s interests in the region

  • China, as part of its global expansionism, is chipping away at India’s interests in South Asia.
  • China’s proximity to Pakistan is well known.
  • Nepal is moving closer to China for ideational and material reasons.
  • China is wooing Bangladesh by offering tariff exemption to 97% of Bangladeshi products.
  • China has intensified its ties with Sri Lanka through massive investments.
  • According to a Brookings India study, most South Asian nations are now largely dependent on China for imports despite geographical proximity to India.

SAARC-Caught in India-Pakistan rivalry

  •  India’s strategic dealing with China has to begin with South Asia.
  • In this regard, it is important to reinvigorate SAARC, which has been in the doldrums since 2014.
  • In the last few years, due to increasing animosity with Pakistan, India’s political interest in SAARC dipped significantly.
  • India has been trying hard to isolate Pakistan internationally for its role in promoting terrorism in India.

BIMSTEC cannot be an alternative to SAARC

  • India started investing in other regional instruments, such as BIMSTEC, as an alternative to SAARC.
  • However, BIMSTEC cannot replace SAARC for reasons such as lack of a common identity and history among all BIMSTEC members.
  • BIMSTEC’s focus is on the Bay of Bengal region, thus making it an inappropriate forum to engage all South Asian nations.

Economic integration-way to revive SAARC

  • One way to infuse life in SAARC is to revive the process of South Asian economic integration.
  • South Asia is one of the least integrated regions in the world.
  • Intra-regional trade is at barely 5% of total South Asian trade
  • Intra-regional trade is 25% of intra-regional trade in the ASEAN region.
  • The lack of political will and trust deficit has prevented any meaningful movement.
  • According to the World Bank, trade in South Asia stands at $23 billion of an estimated value of $67 billion.
  • India should take the lead and work with its neighbours to slash the tariff and non-tariff barriers.
  • There’s a need to resuscitate the negotiations on a SAARC investment treaty, pending since 2007.
  • According to the UNCTAD intra-ASEAN investments constitute around 19% of the total investments in the region.
  • The SAARC region can likewise benefit from higher intra-SAARC investment flows.
  • Deeper regional economic integration will create greater interdependence with India acquiring the central role.
  • Which, in turn, would serve India’s strategic interests too.

Two domestic challenges

  • 1) There has been an unrelenting top-dressing of anti-Pakistan rhetoric and Islamophobia on the Indian soil.
  • There’s also a recurrent use of the ‘Bangladeshi migrant’ rhetoric.
  • It dents India’s soft power of being a liberal and secular democracy, which gives moral legitimacy to India’s leadership in the region.
  • This divisive domestic politics fuels an anti-India sentiment in India’s neighbourhood.
  • 2) The economic vision of the government remains convoluted.
  • It’s unclear what the slogans of atma nirbharta (self-reliance) and ‘vocal for local’ mean.
  • If this marks sliding back to protectionism, one is unsure if India will be interested in deepening South Asian economic integration.

Consider the question “Examine the issues that hinder the SAARC from realising its full potential as a regional grouping.”


Prime Minister did well by reaching out to SAARC leaders earlier this year, but such flash in the pan moments won’t help without sustained engagement.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

Reimagining South Asian boundaries


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much.

Mains level : Paper 2- Regional cooperation in South Asian countries.

State-centric politics is the issue that plagues the regional cooperation in the region. But the consequences for the lives, livelihoods and the well-being of the people located at the edges of nation-states are overlooked. This issue is discussed in this article.

State plays central role in disputes

  • One of the major problems of South Asian politics is that it has to flow from within a state-centric paradigm.
  • This state-centrism has given the state structure the propriety to be the sole arbiter of disputes.
  • It is the state that articulates, defines, and represents “national” interests in negotiations with other states.
  • States in South Asia places importance on political boundaries as the “natural” shield even in the arbitration of South Asian affairs.
  • This approach happens to be the dominant South Asian pattern.
  • In this approach territorial boundaries are valued more than lives, livelihoods and the well-being of the people located at the edges of nation states.
  • “Patriotism” looms large as and when inter-state relationships are viewed through the statist lens.
  •  Hostility, real or imagined, is used as the governing principle in the arbitration of territorial disputes across South Asia.

Lack of regional identity

  • Basically, the term “region” seems to be a contested idea in a South Asian context.
  • This is because none of the South Asian states has ever recognised and respected the idea of regional identity or regional politics.
  • They have been wary of such natural division in politics.
  • Given that this is a reality, how could one even think of South Asia as a region to reckon with?

South Asia as region of regions

  • One must understand that South Asia is perhaps the most natural regional grouping of states around the world.
  • And, at the same time, it is also the most difficult and contested grouping.
  • South Asia needs to be rethought, not as a region of states, but as a region of regions.
  • As such it demonstrates itself more as a borderland that needs to be cultivated out of contact zones.
  • Such contact zone exists beyond the limits of territorial boundaries shared by the member-states.

So, how this applies to India-Nepal border dispute?

  • There is a need to go beyond the popular debates revolving around such “troubling” questions such as: how much area has been “encroached” upon by which state and on what basis.
  • Such questions appear to be “normal” in the way a “statist paradigm” deals with the issue.
  • To those who are to maintain their lifeworld at those zones these issues are troubling.

Interconnected (fluid) life

  • South Asian life, essentially at the edges of the nation state, is bound to be fluid.
  • This is because the boundary, which confirms the territorial limits of a nation state, is at the same time the affirmed threshold of another nation state.
  • In a certain sense, the people living at the edges of nation states within South Asia do not actually belong to any of the two nation states.
  • Or in other words, they belong to both the states at the same time.
  • Plurality, differences and inclusivity bring coherence to borderland ontology.
  • They defy the logic of singular, unifying, exclusive identities that the nation states privilege.

Implications for regional cooperation

  • Unless both India and Nepal agree to see the reality beyond the gaze of the statist paradigm, they would harm regional experiments such as the BIMSTEC or the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) sub-regional initiative.
  • South Asian states need to realise the difference between “regional cooperation” merely as advocacy and as an issue that demands self-approval and self-promotion.
  • South Asian countries may claim success on regional cooperation while closing all doors of recognising difference and mutual tolerance.
  • Powerful countries operating within and beyond the orbit of South Asia might become successful in establishing their control.
  • To establish control these countries may use the token of “regional cooperation” as an issue of realpolitik.

Consider the question “South Asia is perhaps the most natural regional grouping of states around the world, yet it is also the most difficult and contested grouping. Comment.”


Region and regional identity are not just issues of “realpolitik” in South Asia; rather, the need is to “officially” accommodate this rather naturally drafted way of doing politics, if we are genuinely concerned about South Asian geopolitics.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

Common problems of South Asia call for collective efforts against Covid-19


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much.

Mains level : Paper 2- Poor health infrastructure of SAARC countries and other common problems.

The article discusses the various common features shared by the South Asians countries. One of them is the poor public healthcare infrastructure. So, the pandemic offers an opportunity to make the required policy changes. It also offers the opportunity for cooperation among the regional countries in dealing with Covid-19. These issues are discussed in the article.

South Asian countries: Common features, common problems

  • South Asia, one of the world’s most populous regions, is also affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Both Karachi and Mumbai, among the world’s most densely populated cities, where we live and work, are being overwhelmed by cases.
  • While the death rate in these places may not be as alarming as in Europe and the U.S., the collateral damage of the lockdown is taking its own toll.
  • Common features of South Asia: While there are many differences amongst the countries of the region, there are also common features which impact the health of its people, some of them a result of our shared cultural and geopolitical history.
  • The collective experience of dealing with COVID-19 may provide important lessons, which transcend national boundaries.

Poor healthcare system: a common problem

  • South Asian countries have invested very little in health.
  • This is reflected in our abysmally low health parameters.
  • It is interesting that Britain, which formulated our health policies before independence, went on to form one of the world’s strongest public health systems, the National Health Service.
  • Whereas its South Asian colonies chose to stray from that path.
  • This resulted in a dysfunctional public healthcare
  • Governments have also relinquished what ought to have been their primary duty, of health care provision, to the private sector.
  • Having become an industry, the focus of healthcare in the private sector is on profit rather than on people’s needs.
  • High treatment costs in private sector: Whilst privatisation has brought in advanced technology and expertise, the high costs of treatment in the private sector have resulted in impoverishment as most of the population has no insurance or third-party coverage, and pays out of pocket.
  • The sector has also been poorly regulated.
  • The result is that it is responsible for several excesses in its quest for profit.

Other common features of the region

  • Hunger, malnutrition, poor sanitation and large-scale migration are features of this region.
  • Existing infectious diseases like TB, HIV and malaria have been worsened by emerging ones like dengue, chikungunya, healthcare-associated infections and antimicrobial resistance.
  • The region is also an epicentre of an epidemic of lifestyle diseases.
  • Conflicts and expenditure on defence: Constant internal and external conflicts in South Asia not only consume a large portion of national budgets but also divert the attention of the public and policymakers from healthcare needs.
  • Defence budgets take the largest share of national budgets, and obviously adversely impact social sector spending.
  • Underfunded public health is going to hinder region’s capacity to fight COVID-19.
  • The central role of religion: Religion continues to occupy a central space in the society and politics of the region.
  • Though it offers succour to many, religious dogma can impact health policy and health-seeking behaviour.
  • The refusal of devotees across Pakistan to avoid religious congregations during Ramadan despite the government’s orders has significantly fed the community spread of the virus.

Opportunity for policy changes to address healthcare problems

  • COVID-19 has forced us to seriously reflect on our healthcare system.
  • This is welcome if it results in policy change.
  • Healthcare professionals and bodies must seize this opportunity to push our respective governments to address it seriously and not just as a pre-election strategy.
  • A long-term commitment to universal health care, with not only a national but also a regional and global focus, is needed.

A question on this theme could be asked by the UPSC, for instance, “South Asian countries share the common problem of poor public healthcare infrastructure, which increases their vulnerability to the pandemic. But corona pandemic also offers an opportunity to improve the shortcoming in the health infrastructure and cooperation among the SAARC countries. Comment.”

Regional strategy and cooperation needed

  • The SAARC heads of state have already offered help to one another.
  • A regional strategy has a better chance of controlling the pandemic than isolated national-level efforts.
  • The pooling of resources and sharing data may not only help flatten the curve but perhaps even develop into longer-term efforts towards effective treatment.
  • It is being speculated that our populations are behaving differently; that the BCG vaccine may be a protective influence.
  • Joint research into such areas can be a unifying point for SAARC.


It is in our collective interest to look at health security and not just national security. By the accident of their birth, South Asians have endured a lot. They merit better.


Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

Preparing for SAARC 2.0


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much.

Mains level : Paper 2- Revival of SAARC is the need of the hour amid corona crisis.


A tweet by Prime Minister Narendra Modi resulted in the first-ever virtual summit of SAARC leaders on March 15. What has happened to this innovative exercise in health diplomacy since then?

The follow-up after the video-conference of SAARC members

  • Considering that SAARC has been dormant for several years due to regional tensions, it is worth stressing that the fight against COVID-19 has been taken up in right earnest through a series of tangible measures.
  • First, all the eight member-states were represented at the video conference — all at the level of head of state or government, except Pakistan.
  • The Secretary-General of SAARC participated. They readily agreed to work together to contain the virus and shared their experiences and perspectives.
  • SecondIndia’s proposal to launch a COVID-19 Emergency Fund was given positive reception.
  • Within days, all the countries, except Pakistan, contributed to it voluntarily, bringing the total contributions to $18.8 million. Although it is a modest amount, the spirit of readily expressed solidarity behind it matters.
  • Third, the fund has already been operationalised. It is controlled neither by India nor by the Secretariat.
  • It is learnt that each contributing member-state is responsible for approval and disbursement of funds in response to requests received from others.
  • Fourth, in the domain of implementation, India is in the lead, with its initial contribution of $10 million.
  • It has received requests for medical equipment, medicines and other supplies from Bhutan, Nepal, Afghanistan, Maldives, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
  • Many requests have already been accepted and action has been taken, whereas others are under implementation.
  • Fifth, a follow-up video-conference of senior health officials was arranged on March 26.
  • The agenda included issues ranging from specific protocols dealing with the screening at entry points and contact tracing to online training capsules for emergency response teams.
  • Technical cooperation: Steps are now underway to nurture technical cooperation through a shared electronic platform as also to arrange an exchange of all useful information among health professionals through more informal means.

Is the fund sufficient to deal with the grave threat?

  • So far, South Asia has not exactly borne the brunt of the pandemic.
  • Of the total confirmed cases in the world that stood at 12,89,380 on April 6 (according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resources Center), SAARC countries reported only 8,292 cases, representing 0.64%.
  • Reasons of lower spread not known: Whether the low share is due to limited testing, a peculiarity of the strain of the virus, people’s unique immunity, South Asia’s climate, decisive measures by governments, or just good fortune is difficult to say.
  • But it is evident that India’s imaginative diplomacy has leveraged the crisis to create a new mechanism for workable cooperation.
  • It will become stronger if the crisis deepens and if member-states see advantages in working together. Seven of the eight members already do.

Is it the sign of revival of SAARC?

  • To conclude that SAARC is now returning to an active phase on a broad front may, however, be
  • In the backdrop of political capital invested by New Delhi in strengthening BIMSTEC and the urgings it received recently from Nepal and Sri Lanka to resuscitate SAARC, India’s foreign minister said that India had no preference for a specific platform.
  • But India was fully committed to the cause of regional cooperation and connectivity.
  • The challenge facing the region is how to relate to a country which claims to favour regional cooperation, while working against it.
  • Clearly, India has little difficulty in cooperating with like-minded neighbours, as it showed by forging unity in the war against COVID-19.
  • This is diplomatic resilience and leadership at its best.


Given the grave threat posed by the pandemic and other benefits that the multilateral platforms such as SAARC offers Both New Delhi and its friendly neighbours need to start preparing themselves for SAARC 2.0.

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.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

Going regional


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : SAARC and BIMSTEC

Mains level : Paper 2- Why should India revive the SAARC?


Prime Minister Narendra Modi signalled a change in India’s rejection of SAARC as a platform for regional cooperation by inviting all heads of state and government of SAARC countries to a video summit to promote a region-wide response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

SAARC in virtual deep freeze

  • Who attended the video conference? The video summit was attended by all SAARC leaders, except for Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan, who deputed his special assistant for health to represent him.
  • Status of SAARC: SAARC has been in a virtual deep freeze since India conveyed it would not attend the 19th SAARC summit, to be hosted by Pakistan in 2017, in the wake of the cross-border terrorist incidents at Pathankot and Uri.
    • Other SAARC leaders also declined to attend.
    • The summit was indefinitely postponed.
  • Focus on BIMSTEC: Since then India has downgraded SAARC as an instrument of its “Neighbourhood First” policy and shifted the focus to the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) instead.

Backdrop of SAARC revival

  • For his swearing-in ceremony in 2014, PM Modi had invited leaders of all SAARC countries including Pakistan.
  • For the swearing-in ceremony in 2019, it is BIMSTEC leaders who were the invited guests.
  • Soon after taking over as external affairs minister, S Jaishankar referred to SAARC having “certain problems” while BIMSTEC was described as having both energy and possibility and “a mindset which fits in with that very optimistic vision of economic cooperation that we want.”
  • Deliberate political message: Against this backdrop, Modi’s initiative in convening a SAARC video summit, instead of a BIMSTEC video summit, conveys a deliberate political message.

Proposal of SAARC Covid-19 Fund and Health Ministers’ Conference

  • At the conference, Modi gave a call for the countries of SAARC “coming together and not going apart.”
  • A SAARC Covid-19 Fund has been proposed with India committing US$10 million.
  • Modi referred to the role which could be played by an existing SAARC institution, the Disaster Management Centre, in enabling a coordinated response to Covid-19.
  • Suggestions were made by several leaders, including the Pakistani representative, for a SAARC Health Ministers’ Conference to follow up on the summit. This is likely to be convened soon.

Pakistan on defensive

  • India seen as undermining SAARC: Modi’s initiative has put Pakistan on the defensive. So far, it was India which was seen as undermining SAARC in which other South Asian countries have a keen interest.
  • BIMSTEC no alternative to SAARC: While there has been readiness on their part to participate in BIMSTEC, they do not consider the latter as an alternative to SAARC. In taking this initiative, Modi may be responding to these sentiments.
  • Onus on Pakistan: If Pakistan now drags its feet, then the onus will be on her for weakening the Association.
    • There is a new situation as a result of the abrogation of Article 370 relating to Kashmir, which has been denounced by Pakistan.
  • Difficulty for Pakistan: It would be difficult for Pakistan to accept cooperation with India under SAARC because this would compromise its stand on Kashmir.

BIMSTEC not delivered expected results

  • Not yielded the expected result: It is also a fact that the focus on BIMSTEC has not yielded the results India may have expected.
  • Trade below the set target: Current trade among its members is US$40 billion, though the potential was set at $250 billion.
  • Act East policy stalled: India’s Act East policy, which involved a key role for India’s Northeast, has stalled.
  • RCEP factor: The Northeast is in political turmoil while India has opted out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which would have added substance to BIMSTEC.

Why India should revive SAARC

1.BIMSTEC not a credible option to SAARC

  • Today it is difficult to see BIMSTEC as a credible and preferred alternative to SAARC.
  • Cooperation both through SAARC and BIMSTEC: In any case, it makes better sense for India to pursue regional economic cooperation both through SAARC as well as BIMSTEC rather than project them as competing entities.
  • SCO membership a contradictory position: If the argument is that regional cooperation involving Pakistan is a non-starter due to its ingrained hostility towards India, then being part of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), where both are members, becomes a somewhat contradictory position.

2.The China factor

  • China making inroad into the neighbourhood: In determining its position towards SAARC, India must also take into account the significant inroads that China has been making in its sub-continental neighbourhood.
  • BRI initiative: With the exception of Bhutan, every South Asian country has signed on to China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
    • A number of Chinese infrastructure projects are already in place or are being planned in each of our neighbours.
  • China likely to become a key player: With SAARC becoming inoperative and BIMSTEC not living up to its promise, China is likely to become a key economic partner for South Asia and India’s hitherto pre-eminent role will be further eroded.
    • On this count, too, it is advisable for India to advance regional cooperation both under SAARC as well as BIMSTEC. Both are necessary.

3.Pakistan factor

  • Should not give up on Pakistan: Despite the frustration in dealing with Pakistan, India should not give up on its western neighbour.
  • Relation needs to be managed: Relations with Islamabad will remain adversarial for the foreseeable future but still need to be managed with two ends in mind.
    • One, to ensure that tensions do not escalate into open hostilities and,
    • two, to reduce leverage which third countries may exercise over both countries on the pretext of reducing tensions between them.
  • No compromise in position on terrorism: This does not in any way compromise our firm stand against cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan. The revival of SAARC could be an added constraint on Pakistan’s recourse to terrorism as an instrument of state policy.

4.Afghanistan factor

  • Finally, the revival of SAARC would also support the Ashraf Ghani government in Kabul in navigating through a difficult and complex peace process involving a Pakistan-sponsored Taliban.


While these are essentially tactical considerations, there is a compelling reality which we ignore at our peril. Whether it is a health crisis like the Covid-19 or climate change, the melting of Himalayan glaciers or rising sea levels, all such challenges are better and more efficiently dealt with through regional cooperation. The Indian Subcontinent is an ecologically integrated entity and only regionally structured and collaborative responses can work.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

A revival of multilateralism, steered by India


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much.

Mains level : Paper 2- Opportunity for India to assume global leadership in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic


A leadership role by India in mobilising world collaboration would be in keeping with its traditional activism globally.

Challenges and two aspects associated with it.

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has brought out in sharp relief the compelling reality that has been staring us in the face for the past several years.
  • This reality has two aspects.
  • First aspect: That most challenges confronting the world and likely to confront it in the future are cross-national in character. They respect no national boundaries and are not amenable to national solutions.
  • Second aspect: These challenges are cross-domain in nature, with strong feedback loops.
    • A disruption in one domain often cascades into parallel disruptions in other domains.
    • For example, the use of chemical fertilizers and toxic pesticides may promote food security but have injurious health effects, undermining health security.
    • Whether at the domestic or the international level, these inter-domain linkages need to be understood and inform policy interventions. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) reflect this awareness.

Rise in nationalism

  • Need for multilateral approach: The intersection of cross-national and cross-domain challenges demand multilateral approaches.
    • They require empowered international institutions of governance.
    • Underlying these must be a spirit of internationalism and solidarity, a sense of belonging to common humanity.
  • Moving in the reverse direction-Rise of nationalism: Over the past decade and more, the world has been moving in the reverse direction. There has been an upsurge in narrow nationalism, an assertion of parochial interests over the pursuit of shared interests and a fostering of competition among states rather than embracing collaboration.
  • The global challenge of COVID-19: COVID-19 has brought these deepening contradictions into very sharp relief. This is a global challenge which recognises no political boundaries. It is intimately linked to the whole pattern of large-scale and high-density food production and distribution.
  • Health crisis turned into economic crisis: It is a health crisis but is also spawning an economic crisis through disrupting global value chains and creating a simultaneous demand shock. It is a classic cross-national and cross-domain challenge.

How countries are dealing with COVID-19 and possible outcomes

  • No coordination at the international level: But interventions to deal with the COVID-19 crisis are so far almost entirely at the national level, relying on quarantine and social distancing. There is virtually no coordination at the international level.
  • Blame game at the international level: We are also seeing a blame game erupt between China and the United States which does not augur well for international cooperation and leadership.
  • The hopeful outcome of international cooperation: While this is the present state of play, the long-term impact could follow alternative pathways.
    • One, the more hopeful outcome would be for countries to finally realise that there is no option but to move away from nationalistic urges and embrace the logic of international cooperation through revived and strengthened multilateral institutions and processes.
  • The depressing outcome of intense nationalist trends: The other more depressing consequence may be that nationalist trends become more intense, countries begin to build walls around themselves and even existing multilateralism is further weakened.
    • Institutions such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization which are already marginalised may become increasingly irrelevant.
    • There could be a return to autarkic economic and trade policies and an even deeper and more pervasive anti-globalisation sentiment.
  • Depression decade ahead: Unless there is a conscious effort to stem this through a reaffirmation of multilateralism, we are looking at a very depressing decade ahead.
    • This is when the world needs leadership and statesmanship, both in short supply.
  • Contrast with the financial crisis: This is in contrast to the U.S.-led response to the global financial and economic crisis of 2008 when the G-20 summit was born and a coordinated response prevented catastrophic damage to the global economy.

Leadership role for India

  • Is there a role here for India which is a key G-20 country, the world’s fifth-largest economy and with a long tradition of international activism and promotion of rule-based multilateralism?
  • In this context, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remarks at the recent Economic Times Global Business Summit are to be welcomed.
    • While speaking of the COVID-19 crisis, he said, “Like today, the world is facing a huge challenge in the form of Corona Virus. Financial institutions have also considered it a big challenge for the financial world. Today, we all have to face this challenge together. We have to be victorious with the power of our resolution of ‘Collaborate to Create’.”
    • He went on to observe that while the world today is “inter-connected, inter-related and also interdependent”, it has “not been able to come on a single platform or frame a Global Agenda, a global goal of how to overcome world poverty, how to end terrorism, how to handle Climate Change issues.”
  • From “Equal distance” to friendship with all: Modi lauded government’s policy of seeking friendship with all countries as contrasted from the earlier policy of non-alignment. He seemed to suggest that non-alignment was a defensive policy which advocated “equal distance from every country”.
    • Now, he claimed, India was still “neutral” — presumably meaning non-alignment — “but not on the basis of distance but on the basis of friendship”.
    • He cited India’s friendship with Iran and Saudi Arabia, and with the U.S. as well as Russia.

India’s foreign policy

  • Non-alignment: Mr Modi may wish to distinguish his foreign policy from that of his predecessors, but what he describes as its “essence” is hardly distinguishable from the basic principles of Indian foreign policy since Nehru.
  • Non-alignment was not defensive: India’s non-alignment was anything but defensive. The international peace-keeping contribution that the Prime Minister referred to has its origins in Nehru’s sense of international responsibility.
  • Friendship with all: India has always professed its desire to have friendly relations with all countries but has been equally firm in safeguarding its interests when these are threatened.
  • Mutually beneficial partnership: India’s non-alignment did not prevent it from forging strong and mutually beneficial partnerships with major countries.
    • The India-Soviet partnership from 1960-1990 is an example just as the current strategic partnership with the U.S. is.
  • Foreign policy rooted in a civilisational sense: The foreign policy of his predecessors had been rooted in India’s civilisational sense, its evolving place in the international system and its own changing capabilities.
    • Their seminal contributions should be acknowledged and built upon rather than proclaim a significant departure.

Move in line with traditional foreign policy

  • The Prime Minister’s plea for global collaboration to deal with a densely interconnected world is in line with India’s traditional foreign policy.
    • Move in keeping with traditional activism on a global scale: A leadership role in mobilising global collaboration, more specifically in fighting COVID-19 would be in keeping with India’s traditional activism on the international stage.
  • Commendable SAARC move: The Prime Minister has shown commendable initiative in convening leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation nations for a regional collaborative effort on COVID-19.
    • International initiative: This should be followed by an international initiative, either through the G-20 or through the U.N.

Way forward

  • Reformed and Strengthened U.N. should be India’s agenda: The Prime Minister made no reference to the role of the U.N., the premier multilateral institution, as a global platform for collaborative initiatives. There may have been irritation over remarks by the UN Secretary-General on India’s domestic affairs and the activism displayed by the UN Commissioner for Human Rights on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act controversy.
    • The U.N. Secretary General’s statement on India’s domestic affairs and activism by UN Secretary-General on India’s domestic affairs should not influence India’s long-standing commitment to the U.N. as the only truly inclusive global platform enjoying international legitimacy despite its failings.
    • If one has to look for a “single platform” where a Global Voice could be created, as the Prime Minister suggested, surely a reformed and strengthened U.N. should be on India’s agenda.
  • Opportunity for India in the pandemic: The COVID-19 pandemic presents India with an opportunity to revive multilateralism, become a strong and credible champion of internationalism and assume a leadership role in a world that is adrift. The inspiration for this should come from reaffirming the wellsprings of India’s foreign policy since its Independence rather than seeking to break free.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

From virtual conferencing to real leadership


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much.

Mains level : Paper 2- Need to revive the SAARC to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak


SAARC has become the ‘virtual’ platform through which leaders of the eight countries of our troubled region agreed to work together to combat unarguably the greatest immediate threat to the people: the COVID-19 health pandemic.

Success depends on India

  • The success of the Modi-SAARC initiative will largely depend on India—the dominant power of the region, in every sense.
  • Pakistan’s position may become marginal: Once New Delhi demonstrates that it has the capacity, the political willingness to institutionalise and to lead a mutually beneficial cooperative regime in the region, Pakistan’s “churlish” behaviour will become marginal to SAARC.
    • Various international relations theorists view this as a function of “hegemonic stability”.
  • Much needs to be done: Much more will need to be done by New Delhi to establish that the video conference was not a mere event, but the assertive expression of its new willingness to stabilise the region through cooperative mechanisms, for our common future.
  • Rare opportunity: This is a moment thus of a rare opportunity for India to establish its firm imprimatur over the region, and to secure an abiding partnership for our shared destiny.

The genesis of SAARC

  • SAARC was born at a moment of hope in the 1980s.
  • An initiative by Zia Ur Rehman: The idea was initiated by one of the most inscrutable leaders of the region, General Zia Ur Rehman of Bangladesh, who, met many of the other leaders personally and dispatched special envoys to the capitals of the countries of the region.
    • Dhaka’s persistence resulted in the first summit of the seven leaders of the region in 1985.
    • Afghanistan joined in 2007.
  • Not lived up to expectation: In the nearly 35 years of its existence, even its champions will concede however that SAARC has, to put it euphemistically, not lived up to the promise of its founder.

How the SAARC has performed?

  • The dismal performance in the trade: South Asia is the world’s least integrated region; less than 5% of the trade of SAARC countries is within. A South Asian Free Trade Zone agreed on, in 2006, remains, in reality, a chimera.
  • Moribund state: The last SAARC summit, scheduled to be held in Islamabad in November 2016, was postponed after the terrorist attacks in Uri; none has been held since then, and until Mr. Modi’s initiative, no major meeting had been planned.
  • Marginal in our collective consciousness: A quick look at some of the questions posed in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha on SAARC, in the last years, suggest that Indian MPs seek answers on why India is still a member of SAARC and on the strength of other organisations such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) that India is engaged with.
    • Thus SAARC had become almost marginal to our collective consciousness.

The fadeout and revival of SAARC

  • India-Pakistan tension: Clearly, most of the smaller states and external players believe that the India-Pakistan conflict has undermined SAARC.
  • How Pakistan derails the initiatives? Bilateral issues cannot be discussed in SAARC but since the organisation relies on the principle of unanimity for all major decisions, Pakistan has often undermined even the most laudable initiative lest it gives India an advantage.
    • Relative gains by India are more important for Pakistan than the absolute gains it secures for itself.
  • Pakistan’s use of terror: For India, Pakistan’s use of terror as an instrument of foreign policy has made normal business impossible.
  • Need of the revival to deal with the COVID-19: There is no doubt that the impact of COVID-19 will be unprecedented, in terms of those it targets and the way we live. It is too early to judge the consequences , but it will take years for the world to return to the old and familiar.
    • Strategies to cope with this new insidious, scheming and diabolic strain of the coronavirus have to be dynamic and ad hoc.
    • Two principles to deal with the epidemic: Containment and the possible prevention of community transmission are the only two principles that are firmly tested.
    • If community transmission occurs and cannot be contained, the consequences will be calamitous.
  • Time to act together: This is indeed a time for SAARC and the experts of the region to think and act together and India can lead this effort.


It is evident that Mr Modi is an out-of-the-box lateral thinker, especially on foreign policy. More importantly, the tragedy of COVID-19 may provide an opportunity for India to demonstrate its compassionate face to secure a region at peace with itself. India cannot afford to not to harvest this opportunity, after having sowed the seeds of a New South Asia.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

Regional bonding: On Ranil Wickremesinghe’s prescription for peace


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much.

Mains level : Paper 2- Issues in the SAARC, India need to move sub-regional grouping to increase the intra-regional trade.


Former Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s push for regional economic integration and for India-Pakistan dialogue should be studied carefully by New Delhi.

What are the issues with SAARC?

  • Recent moves by India: India has more or less shut down all conversations on the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
    • India also walked away from the ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
  •  Mr Wickremesinghe set out a number of suggestions:
  • The original purpose of SAARC-Regional growth: India-Pakistan tensions have brought economic integration within the SAARC region to a “standstill”.
    • That the original purpose of the South Asian group was to build a platform where bilateral issues could be set aside in the interest of regional growth.
  • Start at the sub-grouping levels: To engender more intra-regional trade, an even smaller sub-grouping of four countries with complementary economies: India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Thailand, can start the process of reducing tariffs and demolishing non-tariff barrier regimes.
    • When it comes to the intra-regional share of total trade, SAARC and BIMSTEC languish behind groupings such as ASEAN, EU and MERCOSUR.
  • Economic Integration Road Map: The Sri Lankan leader also suggested that with India’s leadership, a more integrated South Asian region would be better equipped to negotiate for better terms with RCEP so as not to be cut out of the “productivity network” in Asia, and envisioned an Economic Integration Road Map to speed up the process.

Governments stand

  • Talks with Pakistan off the table: The government has made it clear that talks with Pakistan are strictly off the table, and that a SAARC summit, which has not been held since 2014, is unlikely to be convened anytime soon.
  • More reliance on bilateral deals: The government, which has taken a protectionist turn on multilateral trade pacts, is relying more on direct bilateral deals with countries rather than overarching ones that might expose Indian markets to flooding by Chinese goods.
  • India’s trade deficit with the neighbours: For any regional sub-grouping in South Asia to flourish, it is India that will have to make the most concessions given the vast trade deficits India’s neighbours have at present, which it may not wish to do.


  • The overall projection that India’s global reach will be severely constrained unless it is integrated with its neighbours, and tensions with Pakistan are resolved, cannot be refuted. India needs to be more accommodative for the realisation of its ambitions.



Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

Putting neighbours first


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much.

Mains level : Paper 2- India's relation with its neighbours and progress on SAARC and BIMSTEC.


India has promoted regional cooperation in South Asia in a spirit of generosity, without insisting on reciprocity.

Relations with Sri Lanka

  • Beginning of new chapter in ties: The visit of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to India in February marked the beginning of a new chapter in ties with a friendly neighbour.
    • The neighbour with which India has close historical bonds straddling culture, religion, spirituality, art and language.
  • Growing convergence against terrorism: More relevantly, there is a growing convergence against terrorism following the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka last April.
  • There is deep appreciation in Sri Lanka for the free emergency services provided through 280 ambulances gifted by India, now operational in eight of the country’s nine provinces.
  • Prospects for tri-lateral cooperation: There are much better prospects today for tri-lateral cooperation between India, Japan and Sri Lanka in the development of the East Container Terminal at Colombo port and the proposed joint development of the Trincomalee oil storage tanks.
  • Indicators of a new warmth in relations:
    • Several infrastructure projects.
    • Direct flights between Chennai and Jaffna.
    • Resumption of ferry services.
    • India’s new lines of credit and construction of houses for the internally displaced.
    • Homeless and landless people are indicative of a new warmth in relations.
  • First visit to India: That both Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother President Gotabaya chose India as the destination for their first overseas visits after assuming office bodes well.

Relations with Maldives

  • First visit by PM Modi: After the general elections last year, PM Modi’s first foreign visit was to the Maldives in June 2019.
    • India first: The visit was to establish warm and friendly relations with President Ibrahim Solih, who has done much to promote closer relations with India through his “India First Policy”.
  • First visit to India: India was the first country that Solih had visited in December 2018, a far cry from his predecessor’s brazen anti-India slant.
    • Soon after assuming office, Solih’s government annulled a controversial 2015 law that was meant to allow foreigners, particularly from China, to arbitrarily own islands.
  • Projects worth 180 crores inaugurated: The inauguration during Modi’s visit of two projects worth Rs 180 crore-the Coastal Surveillance Radar System and the Composite Training Center of the Maldivian National Defence Forces-has deep significance for the success of India’s neighbourhood policy.
  • $800 million worth lines of credit: India’s offer of lines of credit worth about $800 million and other capacity-building projects for water supply and sewerage are strong planks in our economic ties.
  • Terrorism and radicalisation are subjects of common concern.
  • DOSTI exercise: The agreement to restart the tri-lateral DOSTI naval exercise as also the tri-lateral NSA-level dialogue between India, Maldives and Sri Lanka lay the ghost of the Yameen era to rest.

Relations with Nepal

  • Inauguration of first cross-border petroleum pipeline: In September last year, India and Nepal jointly inaugurated South Asia’s first cross-border petroleum products pipeline from Motihari in India to Amlekhgunj in Nepal.
  • Prioritising the rebuilding of houses: India is also prioritising the rebuilding of houses in Gorkha and Nuwakot districts, with “Build Back Better” as the guiding principle in keeping with Modi’s clarion call for a Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI).
  • Role played by geography: Geography plays a determining role in creating inter-dependence.
    • Even as Nepal, like other South Asian countries, seeks closer ties with China, there is a much better appreciation today that India’s role as a key economic and developmental partner is unique and indispensable.

Relations with Bangladesh

  • Model partnership: India’s relations with Bangladesh under Modi and Sheikh Hasina have evolved into a model partnership, consolidated by-
    • High-level exchanges.
    • Mutual trust and-
    • Enhanced cooperation on security matters.
  • Border firing incidents: Incidents of border firing, though rare, have an adverse fall-out on public perception and need to be handled with sensitivity.

Relations with Bhutan

  • The India-Bhutan friendship runs deep, with growing cooperation in the vital hydro-power sector providing it a fresh impetus.
    • Notably, the centrepiece Mangdechhu project (750 MW) was completed on schedule last year.
  • RuPay card in Bhutan: The introduction of the RuPay card in Bhutan and elsewhere in the neighbourhood will further cement economic and people-to-people ties.

Relations with Myanmar

  • Security cooperation: When India shortly hands over to Myanmar the INS Sindhuvir, a Kilo Class submarine, it will propel security cooperation to a higher pedestal.
    • Cross-border strike in Myanmar: Close coordination with Myanmar was evident earlier in the cross-border strike on insurgents by Indian forces in 2015.

Unrealised potential of South Asia

  • South Asiasome figures: has 1.8 billion people and a combined GDP of nearly $3.47 trillion, with India’s economy the largest by far.
  • South Asia has great potential but has been held back by Pakistan.
    • Hindrance for cooperation with Afghanistan: Pakistan has not only denied India and Afghanistan the overland transit route for trade, but has also thwarted Modi’s efforts to place at centre stage the common struggle against poverty, illiteracy and natural disasters.

Cooperation within SAARC: Pakistan has held to ransom cooperation within SAARC by raising extraneous matters, perpetuating terrorism and rejecting the ineluctable logic of intra-South Asian trade, which remains abysmally poor.

  • Pakistan opt-out of satellite project: Islamabad decided to opt-out of the SAARC satellite project proposed by India, and it was finally launched in 2017 without Pakistan’s participation.
  • Motor Vehicle Agreement: Pakistan also played the role of a spoiler at the 18th SAARC Summit in November 2014, preventing progress on the proposed Motor Vehicle Agreement for the regulation of passenger and cargo vehicular traffic amongst SAARC member states.
  • Implications for Afghanistan: Pakistan’s intransigence on connectivity impairs Afghanistan’s ability to link up with other countries in South Asia.
    • The air corridor between India and Afghanistan cannot cater to the full potential of trade ties.
    • Sustainability of Chabahar port: Recent tensions between the US and Iran have cast a shadow on the sustainability of Chabahar port as an alternative maritime supply route to Afghanistan at a crucial juncture in its history.
    • India’s role in Afghanistan: India’s proactive role in recent years in building much-needed infrastructure and capacities in Afghanistan is widely recognised.
    • Deepened defence cooperation: Defence cooperation too has deepened under Modi, with India dropping its traditional coyness in such matters.
    • Much more may have to be done, though, to help Afghanistan achieve stability through economic prosperity.
    • Afghanistan’s true destiny lies with South Asia.

Key aspects of Neighbourhood First Policy

  • Response to security challenges: Neighbourhood First involves India’s willingness to respond to security challenges with new grit.
  • Humanitarian assistance: It also involves for India to be an enthusiastic responder in providing humanitarian assistance and conducting disaster relief operations in Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and the extended neighbourhood.
  • Developmental assistance: Even more important is the steady progress made by India to expand developmental assistance and improve project execution based on collaborative partnerships.
    • India’s developmental assistance to six South Asian countries was over Rs 21,100 crore. 

Progress on BIMSTEC

  • BIMSTEC, the other regional grouping, has done well.
  • Participation in disaster Management Exercise: In February this year, delegates and rescue teams from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Myanmar enthusiastically participated in disaster management exercises conducted at Ramachandi Beach at Puri in Odisha.
  • Cross-border electricity grid: The signing of the MoU on BIMSTEC Grid Interconnection at the fourth BIMSTEC Summit, attended by all seven nations in Kathmandu in August 2018, provides a fillip to cross-border electricity trade.
  • India’s focus on BIMSTEC and its Act East Policy have served to highlight India’s key role in promoting cooperative growth and development in several parts of South Asia.


In a world increasingly characterised by a “my country first” approach, India has endeavoured to harness the impulse for regional cooperation in a spirit of generosity, without insisting on reciprocity, to realise the motto of Security And Growth For All In The Region (SAGAR).




Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

Sagarmatha Sambaad


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : SAARC, Sagarmatha Sambaad

Mains level : Fading relevance of SAARC


Nepal has invited the PMs of India and Pakistan along with several other heads of government and heads of state for the Sagarmatha Sambaad.

Sagarmatha Sambaad

  • Sagarmatha Sambaad is a multi-stakeholder, permanent global dialogue forum initiated by the Government of Nepal.
  • It is scheduled to be held biennially in Nepal.
  • The Sambaad (dialogue) is named after the world’s tallest mountain Sagarmatha (Mount Everest).
  • The Everest is also a symbol of friendship and is meant to promote the notions of common good and collective well-being of humanity.
  • The first episode of the Sambaad is scheduled to be held from 2 to 4 April 2020 by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Nepal).
  • The theme of the first Sambaad is “Climate Change, Mountains and the Future of Humanity.”


  • This is the first ever multi-stakeholder dialogue and a biggest diplomatic initiative in Nepal’s recent history.
  • India and Pakistan have been caught up in a cycle of hostility, which had prevented Islamabad from hosting the SAARC Summit in 2016.
  • The Kathmandu event aims to draw all the SAARC leaders and provide an opportunity to break the ice.
  • India had accused Pakistan of cross border terrorism while boycotting the Islamabad summit leading to its cancellation.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

[Op-ed snap]The new worry of depleting diplomatic capital


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much.

Mains level : India and its neighborhood-relations.


India’s recent actions at home like the decision to amend Article 370, or the CAA 2019, may take a toll on its international relations.

Effects on the relation with the U.S. and Europe:

  • In the U.S. bipartisan support for India had been the norm for at least two decades.
  • The dwindling of Democrat support was evident early on during the “Howdy Modi” event in September 2019.
  • In that event, only three out of the two dozen lawmakers at the event were from the Democratic Party.
  • In the weeks that followed the event, the State Department and several bipartisan committees have issued statements of concern over continued detentions in Kashmir and the CAA.
  • They also held hearings in the U.S. Congress, and even referred to Kashmir in the annual Foreign Appropriations Act for 2020.
  • The same issue found a voice in the U.K. parliament.
  • In the European Parliament, there was also discussion on Kashmir.
  • Kashmir became a campaign talking point between Labour and Conservative candidates in the U.K. elections.

Deterioration in relations with Bangladesh and the neighbourhood

  • In the neighbourhood, Pakistan is predictably angry.
  • While Afghanistan is more muted.
  • The real damage has been done to ties with Bangladesh.
  • In the last decade, Dhaka and New Delhi had worked hard on building connectivity, opening energy routes, trade and developing travel links.
  • Bangladesh is upset for being clubbed together with Afghanistan and Pakistan on the issue of treatment of minorities.
  • At the same time, Bangladesh’s repeated requests for help on the Rohingya refugee issue were unheeded.
  • The OIC plans for a special meet on Kashmir and the CAA in April 2020.
  • If Bangladesh which defends India at the OIC feels that India’s actions are discriminatory, Arab countries could also become more vocal.

Possible fallouts

  • The U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has already recommended sanctions be considered against Home Minister.
  • In the U.S. Congress lawmakers can effectively block defence sales to India, or pursue sanctions on the S-400 missile system purchase from Russia.
  • On the international stage, the United Nations and its affiliated bodies could provide a platform for India to be targeted.
  • At FATF, India hopes to blacklist Pakistan for terror financing.
  • Break in ties with Turkey and Malaysia for their comment at UN on Kashmir could also lead them to veto India’s position at the FATF.
  • Unrest in the country could lead to a lower number of foreign visitors and visit cancellation/postponement by leaders.
  • All this also takes a toll on its diplomatic resources that have been diverted for much of the year in firefighting negative international opinion.


  • The government must consider the impact of its domestic actions on India’s diplomatic capital.
  • This capital is a complex combination of the goodwill the country has banked on over decades as a democratic, secular, stable power, bilateral transactions it can conduct in the present, and the potential it holds for future ties, particularly in terms of its economic and geopolitical strengths.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

[op-ed of the day] India’s foreign policy needs rework in the next five years


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Nothing Much

Mains level : Changes required in India's Foreign Policy

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In the coming five years, a host of geopolitical and economic issues need to be reconciled.


  • Prime Minister Narendra Modi has maintained a frenetic pace, renewing contacts with world leaders ever since the results of general election 2019.
  • G-20 – He was the cynosure of all eyes at the G-20 meeting in June, in Osaka.
  • BRICs informal meeting – At the BRICs informal meeting, also in Osaka, he called for the strengthening of the World Trade Organisation and for a global conference on terrorism. He discussed counter-terrorism and climate change issues at separate meetings with China’s President Xi Jinping and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
  • Japan-India-U.S. trilateral grouping – He participated in the Japan-India-U.S. trilateral grouping, arguing for a “rules based order” in the Indo-Pacific region.
  • He met with U.S. President Donald Trump, to discuss the future of India-U.S. relations.

Present Situation

  • The global situation has altered.
  • Rivalries among nations have intensified.
  • There is virtual elimination of the middle ground in global politics, and it has become far more adversarial than at any time previously.
  • Even the definition of a liberal order seems to be undergoing changes.
  • Several more countries today profess support for their kind of liberalism, including Russia and China.
  • At the other end, western democracy appears far less liberal today.

China, U.S. and Asian realities

1.South Asia –

  • South Asia, in particular, and the region of our highest priority, according to the new External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, needs close attention.
  • The region is one of the most disturbed in the world and India has little or no say in any of the outcomes taking place.
  • Pakistan – India-Pakistan relations are perhaps at their lowest point.
  • Afghanistan – India has no role in Afghan affairs and is also excluded from current talks involving the Taliban, the Afghan government, Pakistan, the U.S. and even Russia and China.
  • India might have recouped its position more recently in the Maldives, but its position in Nepal and Sri Lanka remains tenuous.


  • Across much of Asia, China is the major challenge that India has to contend with.
  • BRI – Smaller countries in the region are being inveigled to participate in China’s programmes such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
  • India and Bhutan are the only two countries in this region that have opted out of the BRI, and they seem like the odd men out.
  • The challenge in the coming years for India is to check the slide, especially in Asia, and try and restore India to the position it held previously.


  • New Cold War – Deepening India-U.S. relations today again carry the danger of India becoming involved in a new kind of Cold War.
  • Not to be a paw – India must ensure that it does not become a party to the conflicts and rivalries between the U.S. and a rising China, the heightened tensions between the U.S. and Russia, and also avoid becoming a pawn in the U.S.-Iran conflict.
  • National Defence Authorisation Act  – There is little doubt that current India-U.S. relations provide India better access to state-of-the-art defence items; the recent passage of the National Defence Authorisation Act in the U.S. makes India virtually a non-NATO ally. However, such close identification comes with a price.
  • Tensions between India and China – Closer relations with the U.S. also carries the risk of aggravating tensions between India and China, even as China and the U.S. engage in contesting every domain and are involved in intense rivalry in military matters as well as competition on technology issues.

The U.S.-China-Russia conflict –

  • The U.S.-China-Russia conflict has another dimension which could affect India adversely.
  • The strategic axis forged between the Mr. Putin’s Russia and Mr. Xi’s China will impact not only the U.S. but also India’s position in both Asia and Eurasia, with India being seen as increasingly aligned to the U.S. Hence, India needs to devise a policy that does not leave it isolated in the region.

Disruptive Technology domain

  • Dominant power – Today, disruptive technologies have tremendous danger potential and nations that possess these technologies have the ability to become the dominant powers in the 21st and 22nd Centuries.
  • Lagging Behind others – A major challenge for India will hence be how to overcome our current inadequacies in the realm of disruptive technologies rather than remaining confined to the purely military domain.
  • Cyberspace – The U.S., China, Russia, Israel and few other countries dominate these spheres as also cyberspace and cyber methodologies.
  • Growth in disruptive technology matrix – New policy parameters will need to be drawn up by India, and our capabilities enhanced in areas such as artificial intelligence, biotechnology and cyber methodology, all of which constitute critical elements of the disruptive technology matrix.

Focus on Economy

Notwithstanding India’s ambition to become a $5-trillion economy by 2024-25, the reality today is that the economy appears to be in a state of decline. Jobs, especially skilled jobs, are not available in sufficient numbers and this should be a matter for concern.


The looming challenge for India in the coming five years, therefore, would be how to build a strong economic foundation, one that is capable of providing the kind of power structure needed for an emerging power, and also one possessing the best liberal credentials.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

[op-ed snap] Why South Asia must cooperate


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Nothing Much

Mains level : Transnational approach in south asia to achieve SDGs Goals


South Asia covers only about 3.5% of the world’s land surface area but hosts a fourth of its population, making it a region of significant importance for international development.

Current situation

  • In spite of the geographic proximity countries in this region enjoy and their common socio-cultural bonds, this is one of the world’s least integrated regions.
  • Intra-regional trade is a meagre 5% of the total trade these countries do globally, while intra-regional investment is less than 1% of the region’s overall global investment.
  • South Asia’s average GDP per capita is only about 9.64% of the global average. Accounting for more than 30% of the world’s poor, the region faces myriad economic and environmental challenges.

Lack of initiatives

Achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)  –

  • For a region with common development challenges of inequality, poverty, weak governance and poor infrastructure, a shared vision of attaining the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provides enormous opportunities for cooperation, collaboration, and convergence (3C).
  •  The 17 goals and their 169 targets are inter-connected and cannot be implemented by countries working in isolation.
  • Many are transnational in nature and require regional efforts.
  • South Asian countries could benefit a lot by adopting a regional framework of cooperation that can support, strengthen and stimulate the SDGs.
  • In the SDG Index 2018, which is an assessment of countries’ progress, among 156 countries only two South Asian countries, Bhutan and Sri Lanka, are in the top 100. India is ranked 112th.

Other Challenges

  • Most South Asian countries have made good progress in ending extreme poverty, but they face persistent challenges to goals related to industry, innovation and infrastructure, zero hunger, gender equality, education, sustainable cities and communities and decent work and economic growth. 
  • These apart, most of South Asia continues to be vulnerable to climate change and climate-induced natural disasters.

Varying performances of south Asian countries

  • A closer look at the country-level data shows that India is performing well in Goal 1 (no poverty), Goal 6 (clean water and sanitation), Goal 12 (sustainable consumption and production), Goal 13 (climate action) and Goal 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions) while doing poorly in goal 2 (zero hunger), Goal 5 (gender equality) and Goal 9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure).
  • Like India, Bangladesh is doing well in Goals 1, 6, 12 and 13 but poorly in Goals 2 and 9, and lagging behind in Goal 7 (affordable and clean energy).
  • While doing well in Goals 1 and 12, Pakistan needs improvement in Goals 2, 4, 5 and 9, similar to India and Bangladesh.
  • It also needs improved performance with respect to Goal 8 (decent work and economic growth).
  • There are a lot of similarities among these three big economies of South Asia with respect to achieving some specific SDGs as well as exhibiting poor performance in some common goals.

Transnational Approach to SDGs

Transnational Areas – SDGs related to energy, biodiversity, infrastructure, climate resilience and capacity development are transnational, and here policy harmonisation can play a pivotal role in reducing duplication and increasing efficiency.

Required Funds – In a study titled ‘SDGs Needs Assessment and Financing Strategy: Bangladesh Perspective’, Bangladesh has undertaken exemplary initiatives for analysing its available resources and additional funding requirements for SDG implementation, suggesting that the country requires an additional $928 billion to fully implement the SDGs.

Sources for funding – The study identifies five possible sources for SDGs financing: public sector, private sector, public-private partnership, external sector and non-government organisations.

Sharing of approaches – Similarly, India has formulated some pragmatic plans and initiatives to improve food and nutrition security from which many of the neighbouring countries can benefit.

Increasing flow of FDI – To address institutional and infrastructural deficits, South Asian countries need deeper regional cooperation. On financing the SDGs in South Asia, countries can work towards increasing the flow of intra-regional FDI. The private sector too can play a vital role in resource mobilisation.

Taking everyone along

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the platform for regional economic cooperation in this region, has become moribund and remains unsuccessful in promoting regional economic cooperation. If the countries of South Asia, the fastest growing region of the world, can come to a common understanding on regional integration and cooperation in achieving the SDGs, it can unleash a powerful synergistic force that can finally make South Asia converge.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

[op-ed snap] Smart diplomacy in five moves


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Nothing Much

Mains level : India should go for a layered approach to secure its interests in sub continent


Southern Asia is today at an inflection point with far-reaching implications for the states in the region, and for India in particular. Is New Delhi adequately prepared to weather the incoming geopolitical storm?

Face of Politics in Region

1.Great Power Play

  • To begin with, there is a sharp, though often understated, great power competition in the region.
  • The resultant geopolitical competition for space, power and influence in the regional scheme of things is undoing the traditional geopolitical certainties in Southern Asia.
  • Russia and China are jointly and individually challenging the U.S.’s pre-eminence and drafting smaller countries of the region into their bandwagon/s.

2.The China pivot

  • Then there is the emergence of the ‘China pivot’ in the region.
  • Washington’s role as the regional pivot and power manager is becoming a thing of the past .
  • Regional geopolitics, from Iran to Central Asia and from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean region, is increasingly being shaped by China.
  • China is the new regional hegemon with states in the region jumping on its bandwagon without much resistance.
  • Regional holdouts and challengers such as India will need to balance themselves tactfully to steer clear of the rising hegemon’s ire.

3.Trust deficit in the region

  •  That India and Pakistan, or China and India do not trust each other is not news, but a trust deficit exists between even seemingly congenial partners such as the U.S. and India, Russia and China, and among traditional partners such as Iran and India, and Russia and India.
  • In sum, a power transition in the Southern Asian sub-system, an extreme trust deficit and the escalating war talk pose ominous signs for the region.

The layers

There are at least five layers of balancing acts that India would need to adopt in order to weather the incoming geopolitical storm.

1.First step

At level one, it would need to balance its innate desire to get closer to the U.S. with the unavoidable necessities of not excessively provoking China both in the maritime and continental domains. 

2.Second step

  • The second layer of this balancing game should drive India’s West Asia policy.
  • Here it would have to take care of its energy and other interests (including the Chabahar project) with Iran and not alienate the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Israel by doing so.
  • While Iran’s share in India’s energy imports is steadily decreasing, alienating Iran might not suit India’s strategic interests in the longer run.

3.Third Step

  • As a third balancing act, dealing with the Russia-China partnership will be crucial for India’s continental strategy, be it with regard to arms sales, the Afghan question or checking Chinese dominance of the region.
  • A related concern should be the growing relationship between Pakistan and Russia which must be dealt with by smart diplomacy rather than outrage.

4.Fourth step

  • Yet another layer that requires careful balancing by India is the strategic partnership between Pakistan and China.
  • This again requires a great deal of subtle effort from New Delhi to convince Beijing that it has great stakes in regional strategic stability.

5.Fifth Step

Finally, if India is serious about having a say in Afghanistan’s future, it would need to enact several balancing acts there: between Russia and China, China and Pakistan, the Taliban and Kabul, and the Taliban and Pakistan.


New Delhi should keep in mind that it must, by all means, be careful to avoid getting caught in a nutcracker geopolitical situation in the region. Engaging in a delicate balancing game is undeniably the need of the hour, and let us remember that balancing such seeming contradictions is what smart diplomacy is meant to achieve.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

[op-ed snap] The immediate neighbourhood


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : SAARC, Bimstec

Mains level : Bimstec can't be a replacement of SAARC.


The government has shown its commitment to its strategy of “Neighbourhood First” by inviting the leaders of neighbouring countries for the second time to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony on May 30. . The focus will continue this week when he makes his first visit in this tenure to the Maldives and Sri Lanka, something that has become tradition for all Indian Prime Ministers.

Importance of SAARC

South Asian identity – SAARC, as an organisation, reflects the South Asian identity of the countries, historically and contemporarily.

Geographically independent – This is a naturally made geographical identity. Equally, there is a cultural, linguistic, religious and culinary affinity that defines South Asia.

Common concerns –

As a result, since 1985 when the SAARC charter was signed, the organisation has developed common cause in several fields: agriculture, education, health, climate change, science and technology, transport and environment.

Modest growth –

  • Each area has seen modest but sustainable growth in cooperation.
  • For example, from 2010, when the South Asian University began in Delhi, the number of applicants for about 170 seats has more than doubled.

Failure of SAARC – SAARC’s biggest failure, however, comes from the political sphere, where mainly due to India-Pakistan tensions, heads of state have met only 18 times in 34 years; it has been five years since the last summit in Kathmandu.

  •  It is essentially a grouping of countries situated around the Bay of Bengal, and began in 1997 (Bhutan and Nepal joined in 2004), a decade after SAARC.
  •  While it has made some progress in technical areas, leaders of BIMSTEC nations have held summits just four times in 22 years.
  • With India’s growing frustration over cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan, it hopes to build more on BIMSTEC’s potential.

No alternative for SAARC

  • One of BIMSTEC’s two founding principles is: “Cooperation within BIMSTEC will constitute an addition to and not be a substitute for bilateral, regional or multilateral cooperation involving the Member States.”
  • Its official literature describes it as “a bridge between South and South East Asia” and a “platform for intra-regional cooperation between SAARC and ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] members.”

India’s SAARC aversion

  •  Terrorism emanating from Pakistan is clearly the biggest stumbling block cited by the government. 
  • This principled stand by India, however, doesn’t extend to other organisations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).
  • It is difficult to reconcile the staunch opposition to attending a SAARC summit where India is at least the largest country, with the acquiescence to the SCO, where Russia and China take the lead.
  • Another reason offered by those declaring SAARC becoming defunct is the logjam because of Pakistan’s opposition to connectivity projects such as the Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA), energy sharing proposals and others such as the South Asia Satellite offered by Mr. Modi.

Way Forward

ASEAN minus X – Going forward, SAARC could adopt the “ASEAN minus X” formula — members who are unwilling to join the consensus can be allowed to join at a future date, while members who wish to go ahead with connectivity, trade or technology cooperation agreements are not impeded.

An alternative to Chinese interference – In a region increasingly targeted by Chinese investment and loans, SAARC could be a common platform to demand more sustainable alternatives for development, or to oppose trade tariffs together, or to demand better terms for South Asian labour around the world.

This potential has not yet been explored, nor will it be till SAARC is allowed to progress naturally and the people of South Asia, who make up a quarter of the world’s population, are enabled to fulfil their destiny together.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

[op-ed snap] Eastward course


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Nothing Much

Mains level : India's focus on BBIN is a better alternatice to SAARC.


It is tempting to see Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation to the leaders of a Bay of Bengal forum for the inauguration of his second term, as a “snub to Pakistan”.

Rational behind Marginalising SAARC

  • But the talk of a snub misses the story of the larger regional dynamic that has emerged over the last few years.
  • When he travelled to the Kathmandu summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in Kathmandu at the end of 2014, PM Modi may have figured out that the future of SAARC was bleak.
  • At the summit, Nawaz Sharif pulled out of regional connectivity agreements that were ready for signature.
  • Officials from Islamabad were very much part of the prolonged and painful negotiations to finalise the agreements.
  • Quite clearly, the Pakistan Army in Rawalpindi had pulled the plug at the very last minute.
  • The fiasco at Kathmandu evidently led the PM to shift the focus to India’s sub-regional cooperation within South Asia with Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal.
  • Instead of holding the rest of the region hostage, India chose to expand regionalism with the BBIN forum.
  • The PM also looked beyond SAARC to revive the moribund BIMSTEC regional forum that brings together five South Asian countries (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka) and two South East Asian countries (Myanmar and Thailand).

Pakistan still holds importance

  • That it is not invited to the PM’s oath-taking ceremony on Thursday does not mean Pakistan will disappear from India’s foreign policy agenda.
  • During the last few years, Modi has demonstrated his political will for either peace or war with Pakistan.
  • If he travelled to Lahore on short notice at the end of 2015, he was ready to attack a terror camp at Balakot in February 2018. Modi will have an opportunity to engage Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan at a Central Asian summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan next month.
  • Any productive meeting with the Pakistani leadership needs significant preparation and hopefully, there are back channel conversations underway.


  • While Pakistan to the west is a big challenge that needs to be carefully managed, the east is full of opportunities — marked by the economic resurgence of Bangladesh and Myanmar that form a bridge to the dynamic region of East Asia.
  • Modi has talked the talk on BIMSTEC in the first term. He must now walk the walk, by committing substantive resources for the strengthening of BIMSTEC and removing the multiple obstacles within India for the rapid economic integration of the Bay of Bengal littoral.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

[op-ed snap] The case for informal regional diplomacy’


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : SAARC

Mains level : Informal meetings may provide enhanced relationship with neighbors.


Rather than pray for the success of SAARC, the new government in Delhi should double down on informal diplomacy that could help pave the way for more purposeful regional cooperation — both bilateral and multilateral.


  • If Modi used the invitation in 2014 to signal his commitment to South Asian regionalism, he was also quick to see the limitations of SAARC (the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation) at the Kathmandu summit in 2014.
  • The summit had failed to sign off on the connectivity agreements that were painfully negotiated by senior officials, because Pakistan chose to pull out at the last stage.
  • Apparently Rawalpindi was not ready for trade and economic cooperation with India.

Steps taken to enhance regional coperation

  • At Kathmandu, Modi recognised that South Asian regionalism can’t be allowed to become a hostage to Pakistan.
  • To be sure, Islamabad had the sovereign right to decide on the need, nature and pace of its integration with the rest of the subcontinent.
  • The only sensible course, then, is for the rest of the SAARC to move forward wherever they can and let Pakistan join the process whenever it feels comfortable.

Multilateral Mechanism

Since then Delhi has emphasised other multilateral mechanisms — including sub-regional cooperation between Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal and trans-regional cooperation in the east — the littoral of the Bay of Bengal including Burma and Thailand.

Reviving bilateral engagements –

Modi also revived the bilateral engagement with countries like Sri Lanka that were constrained in the UPA years — thanks to Tamil Nadu’s veto over the engagement with Colombo.

Regular Office Visits to neighbour countries

  • Regular official visits to the neighbouring capitals have become the norm at all levels.
  • It has become the convention for any new foreign secretary to travel first to all the neighbouring capitals.

Focus on informal meetings

  • The Subcontinent can do with more of this kind of engagement — leaders seeing each other on short notice for informal consultations or just watch a cricket match or join a social or spiritual occasion.
  • Informal diplomacy in South Asia will make it easier for India to sustain high-level engagement with the neighbourhood.
  • These include pre-set multilateral summits — from BRICS and SCO to the ASEAN, G-20 and the UN — as well as annual meetings with friendly nations through the year.
  • Meanwhile, some of these multilateral summits could throw up the possibilities of a meeting with the Pakistani leadership.
  • If meetings with Pakistan’s leadership become routine and informal, Delhi will be able to prevent each encounter seem like a gladiatorial contest that must address all issues and produce joint statements, every word of which is analysed to death.

While Pakistan is a special case, informal high-level diplomacy could also help liberate the region from the stuffy and unproductive formalism of the SAARC.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

[op-ed snap] Indian elections, South Asian concerns


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : SAARC

Mains level : South Asian region's want for stability


The rest of South Asia wants the very best of democracy for India, plus to share in the peace dividend, growth and camaraderie.The level of worry is also at a pitch, for India should be the bulwark against weakening democracy in a world of Bolsonaro (Brazil), Duterte (the Philippines), Erdoğan (Turkey), Putin (Russia) and Trump (the U.S.) not to mention the People’s Republic of China.

The current democratic scenario in India

  • The term ‘world’s largest democracy’ is achieving banality as India gains majoritarian momentum.
  • Centralisation and majoritarianism – Centralised control of society would never be possible in such a vast and variegated society of sub-nationalities.
  • Degradation in quality
    • The high principle and probity of India’s political class, bureaucracy, academia and civil society are now exceptions rather than the rule.
    • India’s Ambassadors are no longer the self-confident professionals we knew for decades, they act today like timid note-takers.
    • Higher education is directed by those who insist that the achievements of Vedic era science included flying machines and organ transplants.
    • Meanwhile, the adventurism that marked economic management, including immiseration through demonetisation, has been ‘managed’ through loyal social and corporate media.

India As an Example for others in Subcontinent

  • Parliamentary democracy – Parliamentary democracy is the governance procedure adopted by each and every country of South Asia, and the Indian practice has always been held up as the example.
  • The professionalism of the civil service – The precedents set by India’s courts are studied elsewhere, the professionalism of the civil service is regarded as the benchmark, and everyone else seeks the aspirational welfare state set in motion in India in the middle of the 20th century.

Neighbour’s Observations

  • Pakistan – Lahore intellectuals watch with apprehension as India copies the excesses of Pakistan’s theocratic state.
  • Bangladesh – Dhaka observers are numbed into silence with New Delhi’s vigorous backing of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed as she constructs an intolerant one-party regime.
  • Sri Lanka – Colombo rides a geopolitical see-saw as New Delhi shadow-boxes Beijing.
  • Nepal –  Kathmandu wonders whether New Delhi has it in itself to concede that the amplified Chinese involvement in Nepal is the result of the Great Blockade of 2015-16.


  • India is indeed large and important, but the chest size of a country does not translate into equity, social justice or international standing.
  • Inequality – Because nearly 20% of humanity lives within its boundaries, when India falters, the pit of despair and the potential for violence open up wide and deep.
  • Imagining south asian regionalism in right way
    • The South Asia that New Delhi’s policy and opinion-makers should consider is not the centralised Jambudvipa mega-state of the RSS imagination. Instead, the ideal South Asian regionalism is all about limiting the power of the national capitals, devolving power to federal units and strengthening local democracy.
    • Damage to SAARC -The freeze put by India on the inter-governmental South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is only a cynical means to keep Pakistan out of the club.
    • The sabotaging of SAARC can hardly be considered a victory, for that feather-light geopolitical stratagem fails to consider that regionalism is a potent means to bring economic growth and social justice to India’s own poverty-stricken ‘peripheral regions’ from Assam to Purvanchal to Rajasthan.
    • For its own security and prosperity as well as that of the rest of us, India must re-connect with South Asia.

Way Forward

  • Subcontinental regionalism – Subcontinental regionalism is also important to achieve New Delhi’s ambitions on the world stage, including that coveted seat at the UN Security Council.
  • Think tanks approach -India’s global comeback will start the day New Delhi think tanks begin questioning South and North Block rather than serving as purveyors of spin.
  • Gujral Doctrine – On South Asian matters, they should pull out a copy of the Gujral Doctrine from the archives, to be dusted and re-examined.
  • India that is prosperous and advancing at double digit growth,  would mean much not only for its 1.35 billion citizens, but to the other 500 million South Asians. For its own selfish interests, the rest of South Asia wants India to succeed in the world.






Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

[op-ed snap] Deepening insecurity


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : ASAT

Mains level : Relevance of arms race and disproportionate cost of it.


Indian PM announced that India had carried out a successful anti-satellite missile test (ASAT), Mission Shakti. It might lead to a arms race in the subcontinent.

Reliance on  Deterrence to enhance security

  • After ‘Mission Shakti’ — India’s anti-satellite test — there is a feeling that India needs this form of deterrence for its security.
  • To be visibly strong in order to deter any enemy from attacking is a concern that goes back to pre-historic times.
  • But when this ancient urge is exerted by nations with nuclear weapons, it must be an occasion to revisit the arms race, the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine and their long-term implications.

The emergence of the doctrine of deterrence

  • The doctrine emerged during the Cold War in the mid-20th century when the U.S. and the erstwhile U.S.S.R. had stockpiled so many nuclear weapons that if launched, the weapons could destroy both nations many times over.
  • Since there was eventually a ‘détente’, or a relaxation of hostilities between the two, it is tempting to think that MAD is a valid doctrine that should continue to be applied by all countries with nuclear weapons capability.

HIgh spending on Arms

  • Globally, the annual spend on armaments is now estimated to stand at about $1.7 trillion.
  • Estimates of the total number of nuclear weapons in the world range from 15,000 to 20,000, with each one of these weapons being far more powerful than the bombs dropped by the U.S. on Japan in 1945.
  • The U.S. and Russia still maintain about 1,800 nuclear weapons in a state of high alert, ready for launch within minutes.
  • According to the Global Peace Index, in 2017, the economic impact of violence globally was estimated at about $14.76 trillion, which was 12.4% of global GDP.
  • Since 2012, there has been a 16% increase in the economic impact of violence largely due to the conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Does deterrence work?

  • It is vital to note that having competing weapons, in terms of quality and quantity, has not acted as a deterrent either in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or in the Syrian war or the prolonged conflict in Colombia.
  • What did finally end the conflict in Colombia, after almost 50 years, was a protracted process of negotiation between all parties of the conflict.
  • The Global Peace Index also shows that over the last 70 years the per capita GDP growth has been three times higher in more peaceful countries.
  • This is partly why, compared to 10 years ago, 102 nations are spending less on the military as a percentage of their GDP.
  • According to the website of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), the failure of the nuclear powers to disarm has heightened the risk that other countries will acquire nuclear weapons.

Mutually assured destruction’s impact

  • Theoretically, MAD is supposed to eliminate the incentive for starting a conflict but it also makes disarming almost impossible.
  • This is partly why, long after the Cold War ended, the U.S. is poised to spend enormous amounts of money over the next 10 years in updating and modernising its nuclear arsenal.
  • The tragic irony of this trend is that nuclear defence actually deepens insecurity in both countries by causing millions of lives to perpetually be at the risk of instantaneous annihilation.

Opposition to MAD Doctrine

  • All through the Cold War and even now, the MAD doctrine has been opposed on both moral and practical grounds by a variety of disarmament and peace groups.
  • The most prominent of these, War Resisters’ International (WRI), which will turn 100 in 2021, has 90 affiliated groups in 40 countries. Such groups ceaselessly serve as a counter to all those who glamorise or justify war or an arms race.
  • Above all, they constantly draw attention to the fact that the only true security lies in dissolving enmity by going to the roots of any conflict.


Once the joy about India’s technological achievements, in the realm of missiles, has settled down, perhaps attention can shift to the much bigger challenge of seeking answers to a key question: what really makes us, the world a whole, more secure?

Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

[op-ed snap] Powering South Asian integration


Mains Paper 2: IR | India and its neighborhood- relations.

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Not much

Mains level: India-SAARC relations


  • The Ministry of Power (MoP) has issued new guidelines for import and export of electricity and power trading with neighboring countries.

Problems in the 2016 guidelines

  1. 2016 guidelines imposed a slew of major restrictions on who could engage in cross-border electricity trade.
  2. There was a strong undercurrent of defensiveness in the guidelines of 2016.
  3. They seemed to be a reaction to perceptions of increased Chinese investment and influence in the energy sectors of South Asian neighbours.
  4. The guidelines prevented anyone other than Indian generators in the neighbouring country, or generators owned by that country’s government, from selling power to India.
  5. Excluded were scores of privately held companies, particularly in Nepal, that had hoped to trade with India.
  6. In restricting access to the vast Indian market, the economic rationale for Nepali hydropower built for export was lost.
  7. Bhutan was worried about a clause that required the exporting generation companies to be majority owned by an Indian entity.
  8. This created friction in joint ventures between India and Bhutan.
  9. Bhutan also fretted about limited access to India’s main electricity spot markets, where it would have been well placed to profit from evening peaks in demand.
  10. Bangladesh had sensed an opportunity to partially address its power crisis with imports from Bhutan and Nepal routed through Indian territory but the guidelines complicated this by giving India disproportionate control over such trade.

Key features of the 2018 guidelines

  1. The Ministry of Power (MoP) has issued new guidelines for import and export of electricity and power trading with neighboring countries.
  2. The 2018 guidelines will replace the existing guidelines on cross border trade of electricity issued in 2016.
  3. The objective of the new guidelines is the same as the previous one – to facilitate and promote cross-border trade of electricity, developing a dynamic and robust electricity infrastructure for import export of electricity and reliable grid operation and transmission of electricity.
  4. While the earlier guidelines allowed cross border power transactions only through bilateral agreements between two countries, the new guidelines allows power generating or distribution companies of India to export electricity generated by coal (with certain restrictions), renewable energy or hydro power to companies of neighboring countries directly or through trading licensees of India after taking government approval.
  5. Moreover, any  Indian power  trader  may,  trade in Indian Power Exchanges on behalf of any company of neighboring  country,  for  specified  quantum  as  provided  with government  approval  and  complying with CERC Regulations.

Why course correction?

  1. The current revision is a response to two years of intense backroom pressure from neighbours, particularly Bhutan and Nepal, to drop trade barriers put up in 2016.
  2. Ideas of tying South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries together with cross-border energy flows  that punctuated the early 2000s began to gain steam with substantial power trade agreements between India and Bhutan (2006) and Bangladesh(2010).
  3. These were driven by India’s need for affordable power to fuel quickened growth in a recently liberalised economy.
  4. The apotheosis came in 2014 with the signing of the SAARC Framework Agreement for Energy Cooperation and the India-Nepal Power Trade Agreement in quick succession.
  5. Yet, two years later, the Union Ministry of Power released guidelines that imposed a slew of major restrictions on who could engage in cross-border electricity trade.
  6. There was a strong undercurrent of defensiveness in the guidelines of 2016. They seemed to be a reaction to perceptions of increased Chinese investment and influence in the energy sectors of South Asian neighbours.

Significance of 2018 guidelines

  1. After two years of protests from neighbours, the new guidelines resolve all these issues and restore the governance of electricity trade to a less restrictive tone.
  2. The new guidelines meet most of their demands, that were timed to coincide with the recent visit of Bhutan’s new Prime Minister.
  3. Earlier concerns that India was enabling the incursion of foreign influence into neighbouring power sectors seem to have been replaced by an understanding that India’s buyer’s monopoly in the region actually give it ultimate leverage.
  4. More broadly, India seems to have acknowledged that the sinews of economic interdependency created by such arrangements have the political benefit of positioning India as a stable development partner rather than one inclined to defensive realpolitik.
  5. India has thus signalled that it is serious about working with neighbours on the issues that should undergird 21st century South Asian regionalism, such as electricity trade.
  6. This course correction is a return to a trajectory of incremental, hard-earned progress developed over the decades.

How the new regulations will help India in achieving the greener grid?

  1. A liberal trading regime is in India’s national interest.
  2. As India transitions to a power grid dominated by renewables, regional trade could prove useful in maintaining grid stability.
  3. Major commitments to renewables, which could amount to half of India’s installed power within a decade, have prompted justifiable concerns about stabilising the grid when the sun goes down or in seasons when renewables are less potent.
  4. Harnessing a wider pool of generation sources, particularly hydropower from the Himalayas that ramps up instantly as India turns on its lights and appliances after sunset, could be an important instrument in achieving a greener grid.
  5. Nepal and Bhutan have long recognised that their prosperity is tied to the sustainable use of vast hydropower reserves.

Political implications of the new guidelines and way forward

  1. The new guidelines are a tentative first step towards the creation of a true regional market in which generators across the subcontinent compete to deliver low-cost, green energy to consumers.
  2. Since this would soften the hard borders of South Asia, it is essentially a political vision.
  3. The new guidelines are a significant step in this direction because, for the first time, they allow tripartite trading arrangements, where power generated in a country is routed over the territory of a neighbour to be consumed in a third.
  4. This is a crucial move towards the evolution of complex, multi-country market arrangements. Such markets require the construction of regional institutions that absorb the politics and manage the technicalities of electricity trade.
  5. At present, this function is managed by the Indian state because of its geographic centrality and the ready availability of institutions that manage its domestic power sector.
  6. As volumes increase and experience in regional trade grows, South Asian nations might feel the need to build joint, independent regional institutions that proffer clear and stable rules of the road. The political vision to create this — felt in the new guidelines — must be maintained.
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