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SAARC: The Political Challenge for South Asia and Beyond

This article deals with the overtly unspoken political role of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. It elucidates, first, how saarc has bridged its institutional endowment-deficit as an apolitical organisation with the complex reality of the region - that is, the many ways regional cooperation has tackled political issues in the subcontinent. One of the hypotheses developed here is that either occurring on the side or even in opposition to the association's formal workings, the informal and quasi-official political dimension of the organisation is in fact essential to its functioning. A second one is that beyond serving as a political platform for traditional diplomacy, it is offering south Asian leaders and people a new understanding of the region and its politics. Finally, this paper argues that on the basis of sound empirical evidence and the shortcomings of the theoretical frameworks embraced to date, saarc cannot be dismissed as being only an "empty forum".


SAARC: The Political Challenge for South Asia and Beyond

Francesco Obino

This article deals with the overtly unspoken political role of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. It elucidates, first, how SAARC has bridged its institutional endowment-deficit as an apolitical organisation with the complex reality of the region – that is, the many ways regional cooperation has tackled political issues in the subcontinent. One of the hypotheses developed here is that either occurring on the side or even in opposition to the association’s formal workings, the informal and quasi-official political dimension of the organisation is in fact essential to its functioning. A second one is that beyond serving as a political platform for traditional diplomacy, it is offering south Asian leaders and people a new understanding of the region and its politics. Finally, this paper argues that on the basis of sound empirical evidence and the shortcomings of the theoretical frameworks embraced to date, SAARC cannot be dismissed as being only an “empty forum”.

This paper is an abridged version of two chapters of my MSc dissertation submitted at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London in September 2006. I would like to thank Rochana Bajpai, Monika Hirmer, Linde Bransdma and Shilpa Swami for their valuable academic, personal and material support.

Francesco Obino ( is an independent scholar of international relations theory based in London.

he latest series of terrorist bombings in India has raised, once more, the level of attention on south Asia as a terrorist trouble zone. Although the linkages of these events to a larger picture – featuring Al Qaida and international terrorism at the forefront – certainly make it a prime time news for the world media today, these tragic events need to be considered for their implications in their context, namely, as single instances pertaining to the complex politics of south Asia first of all, rather than exceptions. Yet, among the varied and often intense reactions that followed the bombings, few are those who try to frame the problem at the regional level. Falling short after the end of the 15th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit of Colombo, I wish to propose a new reading of the SAARC, the only grouping of all south Asian states existing to date at an institutional level, as a necessary tool for tackling the common political issues in south Asia – among which terrorism – and thereby raise the level of the scholarly debate on the association’s political endowments and potential.

Since its foundation in 1985, SAARC is meant to pursue and unite the subcontinent under the noblest aims of social and economic development, mutual understanding and, crucially, “the creation of an order based on mutual respect, equity, and shared benefits”.1 This is as far as the official discourse goes, indeed. Needless to say, there is no mention of south Asia as we know it: a region sadly famous also for being ridden at all levels by some of the most volatile and bitter political challenges history has known after second world war.

The core issue about SAARC is to ask what is it all about, how it works and, first of all, if it has worked at all. More specifically, we need to explain the fact that SAARC was born with a strictly apolitical vocation and mission. If that is the case, how has it survived and operated for already over two decades in an incredibly politically unstable region? What impact can it have on defusing tension and preventing jeopardy? Is SAARC finally all and only about purposeless intergovernmental rhetoric? Shall we simply dismiss it as such? Ultimately, can SAARC survive without politics? Yes, and no, and subtly so.

This article deals with the overtly unspoken political role of SAARC, never thoroughly tackled by its experts, if only mentioned by the academia. My aim is to elucidate, first, how SAARC has bridged its institutional endowment-deficit with the complex reality of the region – that is, the ways regional cooperation has gone to tackle political issues in the subcontinent. One of the hypotheses developed here is that either occurring on the side, within or even in opposition to the association’s formal workings,

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the informal and quasi-official political dimension of the organisation is in fact essential to its functioning. A second one is that, beyond serving as a political platform for traditional diplomacy, it is offering to south Asian leaders and people a new understanding of the region and its politics. Finally, it will investigate briefly into why this basic issue has gone almost unspoken by specialists and scholars.

I will first define in Section 1 what I consider “political”, both on the front of regional issues and on that of intergovernmental working mechanisms. In Section 2 the paper deals with the institutional deficit of SAARC and why it exists. Section 3 tackles how these limitations have been overcome. Section 4 tries to add theoretical insight to the discussion and explain the possible shortcoming of the scholarly production on SAARC due to specific theoretical framework used and the new perspective on south Asia coming out of SAARC. Section 5 concludes and sums up my argument stating how on the base of sound empirical evidence and the shortcomings of the theoretical frameworks embraced to date, SAARC cannot be dismissed as being only an “empty forum”. It bears in fact a large potential also in the political field, even though still almost unexploited.

1 Political Issues: Regional and Intergovernmental

For the purpose of this article I need to define the limits of what is to be considered political, and what is not, in matters of regional cooperation – with regard to both issues and institutional mechanisms. On the front of issues, let me argue that the key concepts must be two: borders and the shortcoming of national sovereignties.

As a defining line separating one’s authority, competence and

– possibly – legal accountability from the neighbours’, borders define the limits of an authority’s spatial reach. At the same time they open for a conflict of competence whenever an issue crosses in one way or another the very defining line the border stands for. Borders, then, give issues the reach to call simultaneously for multiple sources of authority with distinct, equal and parallel decision powers separated by a line. Whenever a common, recognised and effective higher authority bearing decision power does not exist or is not endowed of creative powers over groups of people and their lives (political powers strictu sensu), we can consider a border being crossed, and a transnational issue being born. What inevitably happens in south Asia is that single nation states are tragically short of means and endowments necessary to follow issues across borders to tackle them as a whole.

Also, south Asia is largely hampered by this kind of issues, and far beyond terrorism itself: from contented territories, rivers, large regional migrations and refugee issues, regional trade, arms and human trafficking, etc, to more complex issues as communal divisions, the lines contended by secession and separatist movements, but also hatred based on traits carrying ascriptive meanings in all their forms as well as mutual circumspection along the same defining “lines” – all of which relate to some degree to “imagined” identities, but not for this reason less tangible. No need to recall, on top of this, the basic issues that unite south Asia before any other bond, and tragically so: critical poverty, agricultural shortages, severe and crosscutting disparities in

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wealth, social and political empowerment, economic development and access to basic resources. In sum, not a context exempt from political concerns.

A complex shared background of social, ethnic, political and economic features (the analysis of which falls outside of my present purpose), makes these issues to belong genuinely to the region as a whole, affecting directly or indirectly all of south Asian polities, and calling for region-wise political initiatives with some urge. What would that imply on the level of cooperation mechanism within a regional organisation like SAARC?

A distinction on the possible nature of cooperation processes becomes at this point crucial in order to stress and understand why a comprehensive institutional regional framework is instrumental and necessary. A first kind of cooperation process (and related issues) we can call “efficiency-centred”, as could be the case of education schemes, tourism policies, infrastructural and even technological upgrades of industrial processes. In these cases, say, authority A adopts time and resource-efficient policies of a neighbour B that decides mostly to share it actively. This process does not bear essential influence on the “effectiveness” of results (the minimum results will be actually reached anyway, although through a different use of time and resources), but eases policymaking on a shared necessary choice pertaining to both authorities. These issues are normally non-contentious and technical, making the interaction between actors equally noncontentious and cooperation mechanisms either consensual or virtually avoidable.

Otherwise, issues can involve at once and inseparably two or more regional actors – with varying degrees of contentiousness – each one of which has necessary but not sufficient reach to deal with a certain issue, from migrations to international criminality, terrorism, river sharing and ethnic conflicts, bilateral conflicts and nuclear security. In this second case, cooperation can be an essential prerequisite to reach any working solution at all. The nature of the issue calls for multiple sources of authority (single states in our case) and unveils the structural inadequacy of one player alone to act effectively both for all and for itself. The minimal endowments of a regional organisation supposed to tackle such issues, then, need to involve politics in the form of discussion, bargaining and agreement procedures. In other words, this implies dissent, in some form or another, and structured channels to overcome it and yield common policies.

As a matter of fact, SAARC was born to tackle this complex reality on the one hand, but it was not legitimised with the institutional tools and scope to deal with it, on the other.

2 Institutional Deficits

The first to be set up, as far as the institutional history goes, was the SAARC Charter. The association’s founding and ruling bond signed in Dhaka on 8 December 1985 clearly defies the option of using the association as a direct political lever in order to resolve (either or both) bilateral and contentious issues as banned: according to Article X, these issues are to be kept clearly apart from the association’s activities; also, the principle of unanimity was established as the only official decisions procedure, setting aside any institutional processing of dissent and disagreement.


As such, its signing members (originally Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, grown in November 2005 to include Afghanistan) agreed on creating a strictu sensu intergovernmental institution (e g, association), relinquishing very little, or even clearly none, of their sovereign powers, among which, crucially, the faculty of political decision. This wariness was fully reflected by the institutional design worked out in Dhaka in December 1985: unsurprisingly, a secretariat was endowed with the non-creative role of monitoring and coordination; a council of ministers together with standing committees and technical committees would share proposal, monitoring and coordination tasks while, at the apex, yearly summits of heads of state would keep all decision-making power. The latter, finally, would abide by the aforementioned limits imposed by Article X of the Charter.

Not only was this the case, but also no procedure was envisaged for the countries themselves to confront on such issues along more traditional channels. As a result, in Dhaka – and likewise at the 15 different summits held thereafter – agreement on political endowments to make SAARC an openly political institution, or forum, was missing. As it arguably did, every step in that direction would thus enter what has been called an “uncharted” territory.

The historical reasons argued in favour of this choice are many, but none has proved enduring. The organisation had, in fact, on the one hand, to account for the need to avoid India the diplomatic embarrassment of being cornered by smaller neighbours in majority vote proceedings – which would have virtually left it with the non-choice of either ceding ground or exiting the association – and on the other hand India’s mistrust concerning the United States (US) influence on the novel regional arrangement played a considerate role (see also Singh 1995; Muni 2000). These grounds were indeed contingent but not sufficient to build a case for excluding politics from SAARC. The political relevance of SAARC, in fact, did become shortly a defining aspect of south Asian leaders’ pragmatic approach to regional politics, within and around the organisation.

3 Overcoming Limitations

What is critically lacking in all scholarly and journalistic studies on SAARC is a reasoned record of this side of SAARC’s existence. How politics have then been always entangled, at different level but often crucially, with SAARC’s activities?

I distinguish three different areas in which this is unambiguously yet variedly clear: the arbitrary disruption of summits, the informal diplomatic consultations at summits, and the lingering debate among members on the inclusion of political issues in the official agenda of the association.

3.1 SAARC Summits as Bargaining Chips

As per Article 3 of the Charter, the heads of states should meet at least once a year. Since 1985, nevertheless, summits have been held only 15 times.

For the sake of detail,2 I need to highlight schematically few main episodes: (a) In what was defined a “major blow” to cooperation (Vinod 2000: 54) Sri Lanka set in 1989 the withdrawal of

120 the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) as a precondition for holding the fifth summit in 1989. Eventually, the summit was postponed to November 1990 and shifted to Maldives since the circumstances deemed illegitimate by Sri Lanka were not solved by India until after March 1990; (b) The seventh summit (1992, Dhaka) was postponed twice (December 1992, April 1993) on account of the turmoil following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, India. The exceptional rise of communal violence which followed (crossing borders eastwards and westwards to Bangladesh and Pakistan) forced to defer it for the second time as the Indian Prime Minister Narasimha Rao declared his “impossibility to attend”; (c) The eight summit (New Delhi) was delayed from 1994 to 1995 because of Indo-Pakistani diplomatic freezing;

  • (d) The 11th summit was postponed indefinitely for three years (from 1999 to January 2002) in the context of Indo-Pakistani armed confrontation: the Kargil conflict, the hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight by allegedly Pakistani-backed terrorists, the coup by General Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan (October 1999), intense terrorist activities across the border in Kashmir and the 2001 Indian Parliament bombs. India has been held responsible for this major deferral, pursuing the regional isolation of Pakistan;3
  • (e) So was the 12th summit (Islamabad) from 2003 to January 2004; and (f) The 13th summit (Dhaka) was delayed from January to December 2005 due to the tsunami emergency in late 2004 and then to an unexpected Indian unilateral pullout. The latter was justified by acknowledging “the recent developments in the neighbourhood”.4 The security issues were a deadly attack on the Bangladeshi finance minister, the Dhaka bombings and the royal coup of Gyanendra in Nepal. Apart from the security rationale, had the summit being held, it would have possibly backed and recognised Gyanendra’s legitimacy to rule (ibid).
  • The incidence with which political turmoil within and among member states has brought to the postponement, delay or even cancellation of summit meetings reaches far beyond simple record. If the summits have been postponed, it has been because SAARC lacks any institutionalised opportunity, at any level, to tackle such issues within the organisation. From 1985 to 2007, summits – be they held or even more so when this was not the case – worked as a catalyser for tensions at play in the region. An apolitical regional cooperation mechanism in south Asia would meet severe limits anyway. On the other hand, single countries – as Sri Lanka in 1989 and India from 1994 to 2005 – have used SAARC as a tool far beyond the constraints of the Charter to make their position and perceptions of national security heard: they did so in a way that was bluntly calculated and well aware of the impact that unilateral and strategic “use” of SAARC as a political and diplomatic bargaining chip would have yielded before the region as a whole.

    Also, a closer look at the issues confirms that, rather than bilateral, they are single instances of larger and cross-cutting regional features: violent communalism in the early 1990s, the ethnic problem linked to the IPKF intervention in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s, terrorism, border issues, environmental crises and military coups have tangibly shaped the political reach and relevance of SAARC, even though not by directly broadening its political institutional endowments.

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    3.2 Corridor Diplomacy: SAARC as Unofficial Political Forum

    Shifting then to how SAARC has served as a substantive political platform, the praxis of corridor talks alongside summit meetings becomes pivotal. This practice – among the ones listed here – is the only one that gathered the attention of both scholars and journalists. What is often recognised is, in fact, its centrality and relevance in defusing tension and harbouring dialogue.5

    Naturally, SAARC meetings have offered since their first days the unprecedented opportunity of periodic top-level meetings gathering all regional leaders, granting closed doors and hence providing for the most facilitating conditions for political dialogue to happen (Bajpai 1999; Hussain 1999). This occurrence has been very fortunate as a great deal of informal contacts and negotiations on issues which could not be included into the official agenda, and mostly bilateral and contentious in nature, have been dealt with alongside summits.

    According to Chaundhury (2006: 95), “if there is any particular problem among members, they try to resolve it then and there”.

    Assessing these contacts is to question to what extent SAARC has offered a unique political opportunity as a forum, and how profitable has such ground of discussion been. Both the frequency and the achievements of the informal meetings provide us with a clearer clue:

  • at the first summit (Dhaka 1985), the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi agreed on the trilateralistion of the Ganga waters with the Bangladeshi President H M Ershad. On the same occasion the Indian prime minister agreed with the Pakistani President, General Zia-ul-Haq, to exclude any attack on nuclear facilities in case of conflict;
  • the following year at the second summit (Bangalore 1986) India and Bangladesh continued bilateral talks over the Chakma insurgency and the Teen Bigha dispute. India and Pakistan discussed their positions on the nuclear issue and India opened talks with Sri Lanka on the Tamil separatism issue. In 1987, at the SAARC foreign ministers’ meeting, they agreed on the deployment of the IPKF, soon to become a controversial issue;
  • during the third (Kathmandu 1987) and fourth summit (Islamabad 1988), India and Pakistan reviewed their bilateral relations; in Male (1990), after very tense moments of confrontation, they touched upon the issue of Kashmir;
  • at the 10th summit in Colombo (1998) India and Pakistan decided to resume official-level dialogue after a very tense nuclear stand-off, although with very little success (Asiaweek, 14 August 1998).
  • crucially, it was at the 12th summit in Islamabad (2004), that India and Pakistan chose to issue the joint statement by which they resumed negotiations on the Kashmir issue, agreed on confidence building measures (CBMs) and settled the solid base for dialogue which has not been set back since, all obstacles notwithstanding. Pervez Musharraf held also one-to-one talks with the leaders of the Maldives, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka (Pakistan Foreign Relation Yearbook 2003-2004: 26-30).
  • At the 15th summit held in Dhaka, Manmohan Singh, prime minister of India, held bilateral talks with the heads of government
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    (or state) of Maldives, Nepal and Pakistan, tackling with the latter the infiltrations and violations of the ceasefire across the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir and the involvement of Pakistan in the recent bombings of the Indian mission in Kabul. Similarly, Pakistan and Afghanistan opened talks on the issue of terrorism severely hampering both countries.

    The 12th summit, for the conditions in which it was held, was paradigmatic. After several years of extended violence on the Kashmiri contested border, the 1999 Kargil war, the nuclear confrontation, the bombing of the Indian Parliament and the complete freezing of diplomatic relations at all levels between India and Pakistan since 2001, the summit came in the midst of Indo-Pakistani restless and idle reciprocal blaming and political building of mistrust.

    What is remarkable is how in Islamabad, for the first time in SAARC history, both the Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and the Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif refrained from touching upon any bilateral concern in their opening addresses. Such an unprecedented move was arguably depending on both countries’ understanding of the reciprocal gains the resumption of bilateral relations alongside the summit would have offered (Sinha 2005). The summit meeting was indeed thought beforehand as the ideal venue for the political rapprochement, and hence was used also to this purpose.6

    Informal diplomacy alongside the SAARC summits is then a fairly established practice by which each country – not only India and Pakistan – reviews its bilateral relations and tackles any urgent bilateral problem. As I have argued already, nevertheless, the nature of the issues at stake is most frequently regional per se, rather than bilateral – a perspective which is increasingly embraced by the members and the organisation – but surprisingly not by scholars.

    Also, this practice is welcomed to the point of being praised and fostered in official documents – a fact that opens for a further crucial observation in support of my argument.

    Starting with the seventh summit declaration (Dhaka 1993), the member countries set the grounds for official support of informal consultations under the formula: “a more business-like and functional approach in the conduct of summit meetings” (Para 5). This pragmatist claim was enthusiastically embraced at the 1995 Delhi summit by President Kamaratunga of Sri Lanka who “officially advocated informal political decisions within the SAARC” (Chaundhury 2006: 97).

    At the following summit (Male 1997), Para 8 of the declaration included the unprecedented statement that the member states “…agreed that a process of informal political consultations would prove useful”. The belief that this would have fostered the whole scope of the organisation, its vocation for peace and mutual understanding, prevailed. The same title “Enhancing Political Cooperation” would thereafter appear in the 1998, 2002, 2004 and 2005 declarations.

    Also, the Group of Eminent Persons (GEP)7 endorsed a similar, if not more enthusiastic, perspective on the backdrop of a pessimistic appraisal of an otherwise very critical appraisal of SAARC activity over almost two decades of its life. Among the recommendations of its Final Report, it called for the maintenance of this practice


    and even suggested its institutionalisation (Naik 2004). The GEP report was endorsed in the 11th summit declaration (Kathmandu 2002, Para 45) disclosing, even if no implementation was to follow, a coherent official stance on the issue, from a body entitled to represent SAARC as an independent body, aloof of national partisanships.

    Thus, arguably SAARC’s informal political life is strongly welcomed and promoted because it successfully matches both the contingent interests of members and the aspiration of the organisation to evolve into a distinct, endowed and effective regional body.

    The paradoxical finding is that such informality has become part of the official routine, but yet, for reasons some commentators find inescapable and contingent at this stage,8 its informal cover is the only guarantee of its very possibility of taking place. An informal political forum, not its achievements or substantive features, is recognised to be necessary by the member states and by the organisation. This “under cover” diplomacy (Bajpai 1999: 85) is indeed a pillar of SAARC’s political relevance to regional politics. Making it sufficient would nevertheless involve dealing with it officially.

    The question therefore shifts to whether an official channel, however framed, has ever been envisaged and will ever be viable to deal with bilateral and contentious issues, and, ultimately, based on what understanding of regional politics.

    3.3 Including Politics into the Agenda

    As the basic concern underlying Article X of the charter was the nature of India’s role, its position and warranties in the region, the whole debate about broadening the official scope of the organisation to include political matters has been lingering – at scholarly, journalistic and official levels – since the Charter itself was first cast. I will focus at this point only on the official debate among state members, within SAARC.

    Notoriously, Pakistan has been the most vocal supporter of the “politicisation” of SAARC’s agenda: in 1998, at the 10th summit in Kathmandu, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif proposed – late enough not to be included in the agenda on formalistic grounds – a “Development and Security Initiative for South Asia”. He claimed that the lack of an institutional mechanism appropriate to deal with bilateral and contentious issues stood as the major obstacle in the way of SAARC’s successes (Asiaweek, 14 August 1998; Frontline, 15-28 August 1998). Small countries, particularly Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, proved to be incredibly proactive in this regard and pushed by the same reasons (Chaturvedi 2000). At the 2004 Islamabad summit, Musharraf reissued a substantially identical proposal; in his opening speech in Colombo in August 2008 Yoosuf Raza Gilani restated the paramount importance of considering how to resolve political disputes first.

    The inaugural and closing addresses of the heads of state at the 2007 Delhi summit, even more than at the 2008 Colombo ones – which mainly delved into terrorism, energy social and food security – say a lot about this debate.

    In its opening speech, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa touched upon the issue tangentially: he called for greater

    122 “practicality” and suggested that only on a “political platform” could regional problems, most importantly terrorism, be dealt with effectively. Bangladesh’s chief adviser Fakhruddin Ahmed referred implicitly to political cooperation when asserting that regional prosperity can only be reached by addressing security concerns with an etiologic attitude towards the “root causes that lead to violent action”. The Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom as well strongly encouraged a new “political commitment”. He held this to be not only “necessary”, but also “desirable” and “attainable” if the “concept of regionalism” which inspires SAARC is to be embraced “fully and irrevocably”. Connectivity was praised as a precious but not sufficient aspect whenever a shared political will is lacking. Again, Girija Prasad Koirala of Nepal, proposed that the “issues of marginalisation, poverty, governance, globalisation and violent conflict [should be dealt with] in an holistic manner”. A “meaningful new chapter” of regional cooperation, he claimed, was possible without jeopardy for the sacrosanct principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity and good neighbourly relations. What he envisaged and proposed was “a win-win situation for all”.

    Bilateralism and contentiousness of regional relations (terrorism, security, governance, and violent conflict) were therefore combined with differing foci (practicality, prosperity, connectivity, comprehensive regionalism). In each case a step forward was clearly urged. This shows how this stance is not dismissible as Pakistan’s strategic move to corner India.

    On the other side, representing the most concerned actor, Atal Behari Vajpayee himself seems to endorse – however cautiously

    – the latter arguments. He stated that the SAARC had yet to become an efficient instrument, and that regional issues need to be dealt regionally. A stronger shared commitment was advocated. In citing security as an urgent area where SAARC’s agency is now indispensable, he nevertheless spelt out further that such security regarded four specific areas: water, energy, food and climate. All the same, for the first time after more than two decades of SAARC existence, India loosened the “bilateralism” close as the only and exclusive means of referring to bilateral and contentious issues in its diplomatic parlance.

    As allusive and timid this Indian stance may appear it is indeed unprecedented. Arguably, the concession regarding the need to deal regionally with regional issues equals a silent approval – or non-refusal – of the lesser countries’ claims. Neighbouring countries, rather than hostile and coalesced gang, are understood to be fellow regional actors with which a meaningful cooperation is needed. This was indeed a historic shift; a further step after India and Pakistan resumed successfully (if not irrevocably) the dialogue process. Political debate as part of the official scope of SAARC, and Charter amendment to come, have thus reached an unprecedented momentum.

    The widespread scepticism about SAARC stands to prove the controversial nature of this point. Still, full political autonomy does not need to be reached to play a critical role. It is a perspective as well as a prospect informing the behaviour and statements of members as well as the organisation itself. The picture above seems therefore to fully confirm that SAARC is a genuine and unique political agency, still in the making.

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    Why did all this go mostly unspoken in the academic debate? What can open to a clearer understanding of SAARC political dynamics? What can account for SAARC as a meaningful political forum?

    4 Theoretical Insights

    A public debate on SAARC’s political endowments does exist in the region, and scholars situate themselves at its very fulcrum. In a very large number of papers, from whatever theoretical angle may approach international relations (IR) and even in blunt contradiction with it, scholars are commonly found to vest the citizen’s toga: surprisingly, they call urgently for a political role of SAARC to be institutionalised, referring to that same typical aspect of the organisation they tend to ignore and/or even exclude in their analysis.9 What they urge is nevertheless a deep political commitment from the regional leadership towards a meaningful political cooperation in the fields of security, poverty alleviation, resolution of bilateral skirmishes, building of regional infrastructures, etc. Reed (1997), Cheema (1999), Hussain, Budania and Upadhyay (in Upreti 2000), Naik (2004), Rodrigo (2004), Muni (2004), Ahsan (2004), Chaundhury (2006) are among others the most eager subscribers of this call.

    I will argue that the three main currents form which SAARC commentators come from, e g, Realism, Functionalism and Liberal Institutionalism (broadly understood), prove to fall short of theoretical insight when variedly applied to south Asia in their very principles: exclude in some form either or both the understanding of specifically political issues as being genuinely regional, and the possibility of tackling them by empowering cooperation with mechanisms able to overcome dissent.

    4.1 Realism, Neo-Realism and the Struggle of the ‘Black Boxes’

    Any realist analysis10 founds its reasoning on three ontological notions: the nation states as only actor, the anarchy/struggle for survival as environmental conditions and the national interest as rationale for action. Hence it is held that nation states pursue power by all means in an anarchic arena where the ultimate good is material power (military, nuclear, technological) as the guarantee of survival. This very last concept is the only relevant rationale orienting action at all levels and in these terms goes under the name of “national interest”. All the authors whose interest is in the national perspectives on SAARC, foreign policy (FP) analysis, security or geopolitics are strongly influenced by this understanding – Upreti (1991), Kumar Singh (1995), Ashtana (1999), Upadhyay (2000), M J Vinod, Nautiyal, Joseph C and K Gopal (in Upreti, ed. 2000), Jha (2003), C R Mohan (2004), Abul Ahsan (2004), Kaled Ahmed (in SAJ 2005), Niraj K Sinha (2005), Lodhi (2007). Their understanding casts the material opposition of a country to one or many others, as in the case of India versus Pakistan or India versus all its neighbours, as the starting point of analysis. The power quest is held to inspire national FPs.

    In the case of south Asia, narratives of hegemony and counterhegemonic struggle follow as natural representation of the regional imbalances (Boquerat 1994: 81). Accordingly, any nonstrictly material factor (psychological, ideological, historical,

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    economic…) is deemed accessory whenever not instrumental in pursuing power assets.

    Neo-realist accounts traditionally add to this picture the notion of structure. They account the potential of a country on the constraining backdrop of the other states’ endowments and blueprints.11 With regard to south Asia this is rendered by speaking in terms of “structural imbalance” and “entrenched antagonism” as in C D Maass (1999), Rajagopalan (2004), Muni (2007) and others.

    Whereas it acknowledges the extent to which clashing perceptions of power balances in the region, particularly the Indo-Pakistani enmity, condemns the institution to progress at a “glacial pace”. However, the focus on material power finds its ontological and analytical limits in its conception of political as merely (i) strategic, (ii) material, and (iii) national. In sum, the realist picture of south Asia takes seriously into account politics but it stands at the same time sufficient without taking into consideration SAARC at whatsoever political level. The regional forum is mostly an accessory arena where national politics play their game. States are the “black boxes” full with political personality – they are supposedly the only political players on the stage of regional relations. So SAARC is reduced to the notion of a bunch of competing south Asian states.

    4.2 Functionalism and the Deferral of SAARC Politics

    The other most relevant orientation of SAARC literature is the functionalist approach. From the accounts of SAARC as expressed by Ahmed (1985), Muni (1997, 1999 and 2007), Hussain (1999), Upreti (2000), Ayoob (cited in Chaturvedi 2000), Budania (2000), C R Mohan (2007) and others, functionalism can be framed in three steps. First, polity borders are acknowledged as arbitrary. The focus is on economic issues which self-evidently define their specific regional or transnational dimension. Second, regional cooperation is urged to address specific problems according to their regional reach, following that regionalism is a rational-choice policy arrangement for south Asia. Thirdly, cooperation is deemed to gradually spillover to reach political and security issues as soon as economic cooperation opened for an interdependent and a contact-intensive regional environment, in other words, dissent-free. This understanding fully matches with IR mainstream functionalist and neo-functionalist accounts of Haas (1964), Mitrany (1976), Rosamond (2000), Scholte (1993) and others.

    In some cases (for example, Muni (2007), Hussain (in Upreti 2000); see also Chaundhury (2006)) this stance overlaps with communication theory whereby the construction of, say, peopleto-people, academic and societal interlinkages are basal to correct the distortions of reciprocal representation lying at the base of political non-cooperation at the institutional level.12

    Within SAARC, politics is thus held to be unrelated to and follows the economic, technical, cultural as well as social and societal cooperation set in the Charter. Nonetheless, it is striking how frequent political disruptions, as tangential and alien they may be to SAARC stated scopes, constitute a major impediment to the fostering of the charted scopes (and vice versa, see, significantly, the decades-long Indo-Nepalese tense relation


    over trade, see also Rodrigo (2004) and Prasad (1999). Nothing proves that an “incremental” approach is not simply a deficient deferral of politics.13

    In sum, by relinquishing politics to a secondary place, the paradigm of incrementalism falls short of explanations regarding the intrusive and hampering impact politics have on the SAARC process as well as its dimension as an informal diplomatic forum. In these cases, the only theoretical resource is to recur to Realism.

    4.3 Liberal Institutionalism and the Paradigm of the ‘Empty Box’

    The third largely influential set of assumptions I spot in the secondary literature, is informed on Liberal Institutionalism.

    This one shares many of the functionalist limits. Its premise is that the most effective way to maximise and regulate economic activity under conditions of globalisation is the creation of international economic institutions. As the relevant ontological units are individuals, firms and organisations with economic purpose and acting in markets, states do not make a difference. All the scholarly debate on South Asian Preferential Trade Agreement (SAPTA 1993), South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA 2004) and in general economic analysis is deeply influenced by these economicist premises of liberalism.14 In their accounts, SAARC becomes what I’d like to call an “empty box”: the geographic setting of reference for econometric analysis and an institution with negative economic functions, i e, linking countries through tariff policy agreements and offering an open environment for unleashing intrinsically auto-regulative economic dynamics. These economic functions are assumed to match the natural conditions of development, and bearing no political value. Politics are deemed irrelevant or relinquished to Realism as a legitimate concurring explanation of international confrontations.

    The striking limit of Liberal Institutionalism is that such analyses of SAARC do not mention at any point the impact of politics on the process – not even, as happens in the functionalist literature, as an undesirable obstacle. Once again, a normatively very limited account of politics sets no space for any assessment of SAARC’s political dimension.

    Summing up the theoretical impasse, in the first case politics are something Hobbesian in nature and do not reach higher or other level than national governments; in the second case, politics are deferred to an indeterminate future where it would be supposedly easier to address them cooperatively; in the third case, instead, regional cooperation is nothing about politics and dissent, but indeed institutionalised free-market international economy and trade. It is therefore hardly surprising that a Realist understanding prevails every time politics are urgently called into question and that the political dimension of SAARC is left invisible. Such approaches are thus arguably unsuitable to even conceive a political role of a cooperation institution. In their normative assumptions on the place and nature of politics in international relations lies their limit to a thorough understanding of the SAARC process.

    As historical evidence of both a very active political engagement of SAARC, and at least an increasing common will to

    124 tackle openly and officially its political vocation does exist at the institutional level, a significant assessment of SAARC by the academia must emerge and rework its theoretical stance thoroughly.

    In the end, the convergence of political wills towards political endowments of SAARC emerges in fact, first, as a reflection of a blueprint for a “South Asian unity” catalysing the attention and political aspirations of all of south Asian countries and, second, it opens for wider reflections on the actual place and role politics occupy in the theory and practice of IR and regional cooperation frameworks, beyond a-critical and abstract normative constraints.

    5 Conclusions

    Countries seem to have gone swifter and more pragmatic than the academia in acknowledging the limits imposed by borders and split sovereignty, if any solution to regional trans-border issues is to be found. This acknowledgement is possibly the key to a new understanding of the region as a whole, and of its politics, for leaders as much as for its people.

    In sum, it is the pragmatic and unbiased acknowledgement and commitment to the fact that regional problems need to be tackled regionally, beyond any kind of borders and barrier, what makes SAARC a challenging set for cooperation, in south Asia and worldwide. In the responsibility to pursue this design lies the political relevance of the organisation.

    Beyond the form it takes (declaration, agreement, treaty, cooperation scheme, etc), the central aspect that distinguishes this commitment, as any commitment, among other forms of political behaviour, is that it sustains itself on both a present practice and on a sound intuition. Namely, this intuition regards the viability to employ similar channels of communication and patterns of behaviour in the foreseeable future. From first being shared succesfully, patterns of behaviour become then predictable and institutionalised, not in the content they catalyse, but in the procedure and principles they follow to define interaction and policymaking. Institutionalisation makes governance mechanism a precedent. This is the case of the SAARC Convention on Arms Trafficking and the one on terrorism which are exemplar instances of how SAARC, on certain crucial issues, has become yet the ideal setting of regulation and coordination among south Asian countries, and will keep being so.

    The challenge is now of building with firm political will a shared understanding of how dissent and disagreement on regional issues can be dealt with within SAARC at the official level, and define an innovative and sound theoretical framework for regional political cooperation able to acknowledge this process and inspire it further. Only thus I wish to argue the critical issues affecting the subcontinent will be possibly tackled in an effective manner, or at all.

    These are arguably the next two steps south Asia needs to make in order to precede in its own original path towards regional unity, offering a unique and challenging example to the rest of the world and the academia worldwide on how politics is not necessarily an impediment, but the core, in the path towards peaceful coexistence.

    february 28, 2009 vol xliv no 9

    Notes Conference, 20-21 August, Dhaka (accessed on-Morgenthau, Hans (1948): Politics among Nations:

    1 Dhaka Declaration, 8 December 1985, Article 2. 2 See Chaundhury (2006:89-92) and the regional press. 3 This is the opinion of Ejaz Hussain, chairman International Relations Department Quaid-i-Azam University, who reported to the Associated Press of Pakistan on the 6 November 1999. 4 The Indian statement went on holding that “It is only in an environment free from political turmoil and violence that a Summit would yield the desired outcome”, The Tribune, Chandigar, online edition (2 February 2005). 5 See, among others, Chitty (1994); Bajpai (1999); Muni (2000 and 1999); Naik (2004); Rodrigo (2004); Chaundhury (2006). Another approach on this issue could be the importance such informal talks are given in the description of the organisation by other IGOs. The European Union, for example, in its telegraphic on-line description of the SAARC, underlines how “

    dress bilateral politically contentious issues although regular Summits and ministerial meetings provide opportunities for informal ‘corridor talks’.” (Accessed on-line at external_relations/saarc/intro/index.htm). 6 In this respect, Pakistan’s foreign minister K M Kasuri enthusiastically spoke of the Islamabad summit as “pathbreaking and historic” (Hindustan Times, 6 January 2004). 7 Established during that 9th summit, this was in charge of assessing comprehensively the functioning of the organisation and suggesting viable strategies for its revitalisation. 8 Compare, for instance, the stances of Ahmal Hussain (2000) and Maleeha Lodhi (2007) for whom the upgrading of political consultation to the official agenda would equal an immediate freezing of the SAARC process in all its parts. Singh (1995:84) values positively the abstention from formal political consultations “since it may not prove to be effective means of resolving intra-regional political conflict”. 9 Among the rare exceptions are Kumar (2004) and, most significantly, one of the precursory of the SAARC literature, Ahmed, in his 1985 SARC: Seeds of Harmony [writes: “…political will of the nations plays a vital role, and political considerations become of critical importance. The role of socio-cultural and economic variables are considered secondary”]. 10 Cfr Hans Morgenthau and its paradigmatic realist account in Politics among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, Alfred A Knop, New York, 1948.

    11 Cfr Kenneth Waltz’s “Structural Realism after the Cold War”, International Security 25(1): 5-41. E 12 Another group of authors holds on a dialectical

    functionalist/constructivist stance. Ahamed (1985), Chitty (1994), Prasad (1999), Upreti (2000) and others, underline the need to link strong symbols of SAARC to concrete reality. They explore the level of imaginary. Depending on the account, either scholars, the press or the state leaders are vested of the role of catalysing coop

    eration efforts around symbols. 13 As per the historical record, the faith in the easing effect the exclusion of political issues from the agenda would have on cooperation has proved to be historically false as “these provisions have in no way helped SAARC to steer clear of the security and political issues” (Hussain 2000: 80). 14 See Lodhi (2007), NA Baba, Kalam, S J B Rana and Haque (in Upreti 2000) and many others.


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