By pulling out of the SAARC summit in Islamabad, the government is trying to achieve two ends: sending a tough message in the wake of the Uri attack in which 18 soldiers were killed, but also that it is going ahead with its plan for ‘SAARC minus Pakistan’ instead. The fact that India did not pull out alone but that Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan also did so, citing the same reason as India, was a significant step in that direction for the grouping, officials say.
“If you heard the PM’s speech in Kathmandu [November 2014], he made it very clear that we would like to go forward with regional connectivity and other initiatives with all SAARC member countries if possible, and with only some if necessary,” MEA spokesperson Vikas Swarup said on Wednesday. “So if there is one country that doesn’t want to be part of the initiatives, then we have no choice but to work with those who share our vision,” he added, pointing to the motor vehicle movement agreement, railway linkages, and the SAARC satellite programme for which all SAARC countries apart from Pakistan have signed up. With Afghanistan, which cannot be accessed by land, the two governments have discussed a separate “air corridor” for cargo.
A bigger articulation of that vision is expected in mid-October, when India hosts the BIMSTEC outreach summit on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Goa. The initiative for Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal is expected to see proposals on transport as well as electricity and broadband connectivity being discussed. This week, another grouping of India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka met for the South Asia Sub-regional Economic Cooperation (SASEC) programme in Delhi to release the first SASEC Operational Plan 2016-2025. SASEC’s lead financier, Asian Development Bank (ADB), has already approved about 40 infrastructure and IT projects worth about $7.7 billion.
Bilaterally too, India has been busy with its ‘SAARC minus Pak’ programme. Earlier this month, PM Modi played host to Nepal PM Prachanda and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, while Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremsinghe is expected in Delhi from October 4-6.
However, analysts say India’s push for a South Asian isolation of Pakistan is also driven by the fact that it received less than expected support on the world stage and at the UN General Assembly for the Comprehensive Convention on International Terror (CCIT), which it had hoped to corner Pakistan, and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj referred to her disappointment over that in her speech. India also received criticism at the UN Human Rights Council over Kashmir, although Pakistan failed to have any resolutions or references passed against India.
Pakistan’s line of action
However, Pakistan continues to receive support from several other countries outside of the SAARC, most notably China, and also has a new relationship with Russia that conducted its first ever military exercises in Pakistan just days after the Uri attack. Iran too sent four naval warships to the Karachi port to participate in a Passage exercise (PASSEX) this week. The US, which joined many countries to condemn the terror attack in Uri, also issued statements calling on India and Pakistan to resume dialogue, an outcome that now seems as remote as the rescheduling of the 19th SAARC summit in Islamabad any time soon.