The foreign ministers of the seven-member countries, before they left for their respective countries, sounded highly optimistic about the future of the grouping. And indeed, one could discern a feeling of bonhomie among the participants, especially between the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers who seemed to be oozing goodwill for each other, rather than any hostility which used to be the hallmark of their interactions during such meetings in the past.
The qualitative change for the better that one had detected in the attitude of the Indian and Pakistani leaders at the 12th Saarc summit held in Islamabad in the first week of January this year appears to be taking hold.
Established in 1985 by seven regional countries - India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Maldives - ostensibly to find solutions to their common problems in a spirit of friendship, trust and understanding, the Saarc very quickly fell victim to the seemingly never-ending enmity between India and Pakistan.
The process of economic and social development through joint action, as visualised by the founding fathers of the Saarc at the time of its inception, had remained largely a dream all these 20 years of its existence, thanks to the running feud between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. Every time the regional countries met under the umbrella of the Saarc, no matter at what level, the deliberations would very quickly degenerate into a slanging match between Indian and Pakistani delegates, with the other smaller member-countries of the region seen reduced to mere spectators.
However, the joint statement issued by India and Pakistan after a bilateral summit between the two countries on the sidelines of the 12th Saarc summit seems to have delinked the state of bilateral relations between India and Pakistan from the Saarc process.
With the decks cleared, the Saarc Council of Ministers did not find much difficulty in Islamabad last week in agreeing to tackle jointly the region's biggest menace - poverty. According to one rough estimate, half the world's poor live in South Asia. The member-countries also decided at the same meeting to take in hand special projects in the areas of telecommunications and information technology. They also approved a plan of action on energy with a meeting of Saarc energy ministers, soon to be held to discuss the details of a regional energy grid.
The Englishman had turned most of the Saarc region into one single integrated market and a single socio-political unit in a matter of about 200 years. In fact, only about 57 years ago, the Saarc region was one single integrated whole - geographically, economically, socially and politically. Even the currency was the same in most parts of the Saarc region then. The British India had within itself, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. Sri Lanka and Maldives had separate administrations, but for all intents and purposes, the proximity of the two, with the sub-continental landmass had made them an integral part of the Raj. By the time the English left the region, they had given it one common official language, a common legal system, a common education system, and a common economic arrangement, and had also established a communication system, which linked the various parts of the subcontinent with criss-crossing trade routes. And the people of the region by then had started using Hindustani, a mixture of Hindi and Urdu, as the lingua franca.
When independence came to the region, the 'whole' was broken up into parts with artificial dividing lines. And as the days passed, these dividing lines were reinforced with ideological, intellectual and psychological boundary walls by the newly-independent nations greatly concerned, and justifiably so, to develop and maintain separate national identities from their neighbours. As a result, for the next couple of decades, these countries were seen emphasising and deepening their differences rather than recalling their commonalties for developing good neighbourly relations.
The bigger two of the seven countries - India and Pakistan - were caught up in a conflict very early in the day, adding a bloody dimension to their relationship which, with the passage of time, swelled into a 'do or die' cause for both and made them go to wars. Out of these wars emerged one more country - Bangladesh.
India, bigger in size, population and economy than all the others put together, appeared to the other six, perhaps even without its wanting to be so, as a highly hegemonic entity. There was not much that India could do to dispel this impression. Besides the size, its physical placement on the map had made India share its borders with five of the six Saarc members. This too served to deepen suspicions about India in the smaller neighbours, rather than bring them closer to New Delhi. And as a result, India was seen as being an obstacle, rather than a facilitator in the Saarc process. India, on its part, perhaps thought and legitimately so, that the other six countries were using Saarc to gang up on it.
However, last week's meeting of the Saarc's Council of Ministers, seems to have attempted to make the most of the space that India and Pakistan had created in January this year by delinking their relationship from the Saarc process. In the immediate run, a South Asia Free Trade Area (Safta) is expected to be established by 2006. Meanwhile, there is this question of according the most favoured nation status to India by Pakistan under the WTO, which now appears to be matter of time only. So, in the days to come, the Saarc principles are likely to be guiding the member-nations in their endeavour to join hands for collective prosperity.
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