Friday, February 04, 2005

BANGLADESH: SAARC’s multilateralism Vs India’s unilateralism

+ India and Bangladesh have simmering problems on the issues of border demarcation, refugees and water sharing, among others. But while these problems cut across the internal political polarisation within Bangladesh, New Delhi definitely feels much more at ease dealing with an Awami League government than Ms Zia whose government is widely considered a centre-right dispensation by both India and the liberal elements within Bangladesh.+

04/03/2005

SAARC’s multilateralism Vs India’s unilateralism

India’s decision not to attend the 13th SAARC conference scheduled for February 6-7 in Dhaka, which has now been postponed, has angered host Bangladesh and disappointed other SAARC states, including Islamabad. Pakistan, which is the current chair of SAARC, has announced the postponement and called for new dates. This is the second postponement of the meeting, which was originally scheduled for January 9-11 but postponed because of the tsunami disaster.

The Indian External Affairs Ministry announced last Wednesday that India would not be able to attend the meeting and cited security concerns for its decision. Dhaka has predictably reacted angrily to New Delhi’s decision. Its foreign secretary Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury rejected India’s concern over security. Mr Chowdhury said that “there is a shared belief that SAARC should not be held hostage to bilateral considerations”, clearly indicates that Dhaka thinks the decision is pegged to deteriorating relations between Delhi and Dhaka. Interestingly, India’s announcement came even as an Indian security team was in Dhaka and consulting with Bangladesh’s security agencies. What is going on?

This is an important question because SAARC’s progress is largely in India’s favour, especially from the viewpoint of trade and cultural ties. However, it is equally true that India has forced postponements in the past also. Why would it do that if a strong SAARC favours it?

This is where India’s perception of its own role vis à vis other regional states comes in. India perceives itself as the leader and it wants SAARC to reflect that “reality”. In this specific case, it seems to have two concerns. The situation in Nepal seems to be getting out of hand and King Gyanendra’s decision to sack the government, declare a state of emergency and assume direct powers for the next three years has been largely criticised by the world, including India. The events in Nepal are important for India which has a major influence and stake in that country. It seems that one of the reasons for not attending the SAARC meeting was to avoid giving swift legitimacy to the happenings in Nepal. India has adopted a similar attitude towards Bangladesh where it faces problems with the current dispensation of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia. India and Bangladesh have simmering problems on the issues of border demarcation, refugees and water sharing, among others. But while these problems cut across the internal political polarisation within Bangladesh, New Delhi definitely feels much more at ease dealing with an Awami League government than Ms Zia whose government is widely considered a centre-right dispensation by both India and the liberal elements within Bangladesh.

However, the main driver seems to be India’s desire to dominate its neighbourhood. Its reaction to developments within the region clearly shows that it wants to monitor the behaviour of its neighbours and have a say in the internal affairs of the small and weaker ones. The irony is that while India has always insisted on keeping bilateralism out of SAARC and emphasised multilateralism, its current emphasis on acting as a kind of moral gendarme that grades states on the basis of how they behave internally is actually unilateralism.

The question is: Where is that likely to take SAARC? Not very far, we are afraid. Already those characteristics that have made a success ASEAN or the EU are absent from SAARC. The region is stuck with a very big state that wants to play a dominant role. So the dice is already loaded against multilateralism in South Asia. And now that India has decided to actually begin to operationalise its unilateralism without much compunction, a mature and multilateral SAARC seems far away. *