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OffStumped For All Things Right of Center, Bringing a Right of Centre Reality Check to Indian Politics, News Media Reporting and Opinion now in Hindi अब आप के लिये हिंदी मे.
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The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has opened its annual summit in New Delhi. This was the 14th summit since its inception. The two-day SAARC Summit, attended by leaders from eight countries including the latest entrant Afghanistan, agreed to take “every possible measure” to stop financing of terror acts and counter trafficking of narcotics and illicit arms. The eight-page Declaration took note of India’s initiative for a SAARC Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal matters to effectively combat terrorism and organised crime. Terming the Declaration as “comprehensive and forward-looking”, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said it gave SAARC a wider mandate to promote peace and development in the region, including through greater connectivity in trade, movement of people and through the flow of ideas. The document was adopted by the leaders from Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Maldives, Bangladesh and Bhutan.

In a stinging analysis of the SAARC bonhomie, FT’s South Asia bureau chief Jo Johnson called the summit lacklustre and said India still has much to learn from China’s deft economic diplomacy. His argument

While Beijing has sought to create interdependencies with its rivals, in support of its stated ambitions for a “peaceful rise”, New Delhi appears complacent about the fact that it presides over the least economically integrated region in the world

Offstumped takes a hard look at SAARC and the sorry state of affairs in our neighbourhood.

“hughty, foolishly vain, self-conceited and stolid” was how one translation of Al-Beruni’s observations on India puts it. Perceptions of Indiahave come a long way since but not so in our immideate neighbourhood. Jo Johnson puts it glibly – Good fences make good neighbours, but India has taken the saying too literally. What is it about us and our neighbourhood that makes regional co-operation so challenging ?

Offstumped’s hypothesis is that we are an angry neighbourhood and therein lies the challenge.

The net aggregate anger across the countries that make up any neighbourhood should be a good measure of neighbourly bonhomie or lack of.

Let us take the NAFTA region as an example – politics in the U.S. is generally marked by an apathetic and ignorant majority influenced by a highly motivated and angry minority. Given the high opportunity costs of sustaining public anger, the micro-minority’s contribution to the aggregate anger is small if not insignificant. One can see this anger manifest itself in the ongoing Immigration debate and tighter borders but not serious enough to really derail cross border free trade. The region has definitely transformed from the pre-9/11 days of benign borders to the present times of a vigilant Homeland Security and vigilante Minutemen, but economic integration and free trade continues to flourish albeit some hiccups.

Across the pond, the net aggregate anger in the European Union saw itself manifest in strong resistance to EU Constitution vote sometime back and immigrant unfriendly legislations in recent times. Fears of the Polish Plumber and Indian Steelman on the one hand and Muslim Immigrant anger on the other saw hurdles to greater economic integration but was not significant enough to derail or rollback current levels of economic integration.

Coming to our own neighbourhood the net aggregate anger is assuming “cardiac arrest proportions” and a regional meltdown should not be ruled out. Starting with anger across rural Nepal fanned by the Maoists to the anger in the streets of Bangladesh fanned by a mismanaged democracy and irrepresible Islamic demagogues, sub-continental anger has been at a high. With the Lankan crisis escalating with recent air strikes by LTTE and the fluidity in Pakistan on account of anti-Musharraf turmoil, India not only suffers volatile borders but also very angry neighbors dwelling across those borders.

That brings us to the topic at hand on SAARC. With all this anger it is no surprise SAARC continues to be a dysfunctional showpiece of South Asian co-operation. When the Lankan crisis was brewing last August, Offstumped had called for a full time foreign minister in the Manmohan Singh Government to don the mantle of South Asian Leadership. Many months later when in October Manmohan Singh had finally appointed Pranab Mukherjee as the foreign minister Offstumped had pointed out why his appointment was nothing to celebrate.

Offstumped Bottomline: The FT’s Jo Johnson makes an important observation when he contrasts India’s lacklustre foreign policy leadership with deal making China. Manmohan Singh’s foreign policy flourishes have been limited to the yet to materialize Indo-US Nuke Deal and the Havana self-goal in the Joint Terrorism Mechanism with Pakistan. Apart from empty rhetoric of foreign policy independence manifested in the “all talk no action” Iran Pipeline project the UPA Government has failed miserably on the foreign policy front.

South Asia needs an urgent dose of Anger Management, who better than peace loving India to deliver it, if only our Foreign Minister showed more dynamism and leadership.

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