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India boycotts Saarc summit: Five finer points in the diplomatic tussle

modi-tussel-pakNEW DELHI: In its strongest display of displeasure against Pakistan after the September 18 Uri attack in Kashmir, India has pulled out of the November Saarc summit in Pakistan, effectively leading to the cancellation of the eight-nation meet in Islamabad. Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Dhaka too boycotted the meet.

New Delhi has of late been making a series of moves to isolate Pakistan diplomatically in the aftermath of the attack on the Indian Army base in northern Kashmir’s Uri. They include a review of the Indus Waters Treaty and the possible downgrading of Most Favoured Nation status to Pakistan.

The decision by the four countries prompted Saarc chair Nepal on Wednesday to call off the summit . Here are five finer points in the diplomatic tussle:

1) Linking terrorism with regional cooperation

India’s announcement that it will not attend the 19th Saarc summit in Pakistan featured a carefully formulated paragraph: “India remains steadfast in its commitment to regional cooperation, connectivity and contacts but believes that these can only go forward in an atmosphere free of terror.”

That passage in the statement from the external affairs ministry on Tuesday amounts to raising the stakes. It implies that Pakistan-sponsored terrorism is the biggest threat to regional cooperation. “Atmosphere free of terror”, which has for long been heard in the context of India-Pakistan bilateral talks, has now got extended to the context of the entire subcontinent.

2) Raising a coalition: Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan, too, to corner Pakistan

When India was keeping the cards close to its chest on whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi will attend the Saarc summit, Afghanistan and Bangladesh came out with statements that expressed doubts over the attendance of their leaders at the November gathering in Islamabad. With the fig leaf ready, New Delhi got the close neighbour Bhutan on its side. Dhaka and Kabul, too, announced they were pulling out of the summit.

3) Back to the revival of Saarc-1 formula

The NDA government did toe this idea once when Pakistan consistently threw spanner into Saarc projects. An ambitious project to boost road connectivity in the subcontinentconsistently hit the Pakistan roadblock, forcing India to opt for sub-regional connectivity plans. Pakistan also stayed away from PM Modi’s signature Saarc satellite project.

Founded in 1985, the eight-member Saarc remains one of the least integrated groupings in the world. Less than 5% of the region’s global trade takes place among its member countries, and barely 10% of the region’s commerce is conducted in the Saarc Free Trade Area. But Pakistan remains the ­second-biggest economy in the bloc. And a Saarc without Pakistan can defeat the very purpose of South Asian integration.

4) Political messaging, factoring in domestic compulsions

The Narendra Modi government was in the danger of not walking the talk on its election rhetoric on Pakistan. With Uttar Pradesh elections round the corner, domestic pressure also played up in the government’s decision to act tough.

5) Smelling first victory of its ‘isolate Pakistan’ policy

Global isolation of Pakistan is easily said than done. But India needed to show its ‘isolate-Pakistan’ policy has taken off. For New Delhi, what worked to its advantage was the recent nose-diving in Pakistan’s relationship with Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Both these nations were happy to join hands with India. For Pakistan, having friends in South Asia was never a big priority, as its foreign policy mostly factors in three countries: China, the US and Saudi Arabia, besides the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Conference. But not being able to host Saarc summit is a sure loss of face for Pakistan. -HT


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