M A I N   N E W S

Sun, sand and smiles for Manmohan at SAARC
India has reasons to bask as the 17th summit gets
underway in Maldives

Raj Chengappa, Editor-in-Chief in Maldives

Gan, November 9
If you walk on any island in the Maldives for more than two kilometers on either side, you are likely to fall into the sea! That’s how small they are. Maldives is a cluster of 26 atolls that are spread so far apart that island hopping can be maddeningly slow. Heads of states and delegates to the 17th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) discovered this when they descended on this tiny country.

To get to the coral-blue island of Gan at the Addu atoll where the SAARC summit is being held, the PM and his entourage had to change aircraft at Male, as the airport was not designed for landing heavier aircraft such as Air India’s Boeing 747. The flight from Male to Gan takes an hour by an Airbus A 310 and is a bit like going from Delhi to Srinagar.

From the Gan landing airstrip to Shangrila resort where the summit leaders are being hosted, the Prime Minister had to take a 20-minute ride in a speed boat. If ‘Building bridges’ is the theme of the 2011 SAARC summit, it should perhaps begin by improving connectivity in the Maldives! Apart from bridging the trust deficit that still remains between SAARC countries.

No one is complaining though, least of all Manmohan Singh, who along with his wife Gursharan Kaur, seemed relaxed when he arrived at Gan. Unlike Delhi, where the winter chill had set in, Maldives' climate is balmy with temperatures averaging 30 degrees centigrade. The weather was not the only reason that made the Prime Minister look warmly upon his visit. India is really the Big Daddy in the region, the one with an Everest of an economy compared to its South Asian compatriots and has deep pockets to bankroll some of its neighbours’ developmental efforts.

In the past three months, domestically even as his beleaguered government, marred by scams and coalition showdowns, spirals into a tailspin on foreign affairs the prime minister has reason to bask in the Maldivian sun and smile, especially at the progress achieved in India’s strategic backyard. From September onwards, Manmohan Singh’s government has dazzled the world with some deft footwork while dealing with its neighbours.

That it did by entering into a landmark security pact with Afghanistan, signing a historic border settlement with Bangladesh, hosting Myanmar’s powerful military leader, having a firm word with the Sri Lankan President in New York over the problems of the Tamil minority, providing a perfect honeymoon getaway for Bhutan’s newly wedded king and, most importantly, getting Pakistan to finally grant India the status of Most Favoured Nation for trade. While Pakistan has exhibited some ambivalence on the issue since then, clarity on the MFN status is expected when Manmohan Singh meets Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani at a bilateral summit on the sidelines of SAARC early Thursday morning.

Any progress on the trade front is significant not just for India and Pakistan but all the other six SAARC countries, namely Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives, Sri Lankan and Afghanistan (the most recent entrant). For long, the hostility between India and Pakistan had derailed progress on the trade front and had rendered ineffective the efforts to establish a South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) that could transform the region's economic growth.

While bilateral meetings tend to overshadow SAARC, much to the annoyance of the region’s smaller countries like Maldives, the summit is largely India’s show. The Ministry of External Affairs’ spin doctors would like to project SAARC as a success beyond expectations. Some may even have the gumption of comparing it with ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) grouping and the European Union (EU), claiming that what SAARC has achieved in its 26th year of its existence has been done at a faster pace in many sectors than what the other two economic biggies have been able to achieve.

The truth is that SAARC has so far been moderate in its accomplishments. But significantly it is now finally ready to take off and become a major economic grouping. Or, to put it even more dramatically, SAARC is an idea whose time has finally arrived. That is indicated by the fact that there are now nine countries that have been given ‘Observer” status at the current summit in Maldives outnumbering the number of member countries. These are the US, Australia, China, the EU, Iran, Japan, South Korea, Mauritius and Myanmar. That is a good sign as many of these countries had written off SAARC regarding it as a lost cause.

The fact is that India’s neighbourhood is in a better shape than it has been for many years. Nepal appears back on track, restive Bangladesh has got its economy going, Sri Lanka has finally ended years of civil war and Pakistan, despite internal strife, wants to bring its economy back in shape. In all the eight SAARC countries, democracy has emerged though in Afghanistan, Nepal and Bhutan it may still be nascent.

So, while there may not be big ticket items emerging from the 17th SAARC summit, the real challenge would be to implement the many forward looking steps that had been taken in previous summits. While there has been cooperation in a wide range of areas such as trade, connectivity, food security, women and child development, combating organised crime and terror and establishing a regional standards organisation, much of these have to be implemented effectively.

Before emplaning to Maldives Manmohan Singh said, “India is willing to do much more …to improve connectivity on a bilateral, sub-regional and regional basis” and work towards “developing a South Asian identity” for the region. The Maldives summit must produce an agenda for speeding up implementation if the Prime Minister’s vision has to become a reality.





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