Expectations were low when heads of state of the eight South-Asian members of SAARC met in Kathmandu last week. See [SAARC Meets in Nepal – What is It? – And What to Expect] The pessimism turns out to have been justified, since none of the agreements expected were inked at the summit. (A watered-down version of one, a pact on sharing electric power, was approved after considerable behind-the-scenes arm-twisting applied to Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif.)
The summit appeared headed for abject failure, but a last-minute handshake by Sharif and India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, brought tumultuous applause from the delegates.
Earlier in the meeting the two leaders had snubbed each other: “Pakistan has expressed no interest in a meeting,” sniffed an Indian official, while his Pakistani counterpart said, “India hasn’t put a meeting on their agenda.” When PM Sharif rose to address the summit, Modi ostentatiously started to read a magazine, and tit-for-tat, Sharif appeared to be dozing during Modi’s speech.
In the waning hours of the gathering Nepali Prime Minister Sushil Koirala reportedly implored both leaders to at least shake hands publicly. This they eventually did at the closing ceremony.
That this limited gesture was widely taken as a sign of success for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit highlights how little the eight nations actually cooperate. Less than three percent of the member countries’ trade occurs within the group. An agreement on transit that would have cut red tape and boosted all of the nations’ economies failed due to the geopolitical rivalry between India and Pakistan – a major lost opportunity.
SAARC has accomplished little during its 30-year history precisely because domestic concerns and regional rivalries have taken priority over improving the lives of the 1.6 billion people who live in South Asia. This summit’s disappointing outcome and the struggle to get the leaders of the two largest members to be even superficially cordial provide yet another example of that problem.