Two years after an India-led boycott of a South Asian regional summit that was to be hosted by Pakistan, Islamabad seems to be working up support among smaller countries in South Asia for the meeting.
In recent weeks, Sri Lanka and Nepal have voiced support for the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation or Saarc summit in Islamabad this year. But the idea of a Saarc summit is unlikely to appeal to India that holds Pakistan responsible for many terrorist acts in the country, said analysts.
Pakistan was to host the 19th Saarc summit in November 2016. A series of attacks on Indian military installations, however, in 2016, starting with the strike on Pathankot in January, and another in Uri, put paid to some nascent efforts to get the India-Pakistan peace dialogue—stalled since 2013—back on track. India pulled out of the summit followed by Bangladesh, Bhutan, Afghanistan and others in the region. In October, in a rather pointed message to Pakistan, India invited leaders of the BIMSTEC regional grouping—straddling South and Southeast Asia—for an outreach meeting with Brics leaders in Goa. It was at the Goa Brics summit that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi famously described Pakistan as the “mothership of terrorism”, adding for a good measure that “this country shelters not just terrorists. It nurtures a mindset. A mindset that loudly proclaims that terrorism is justified for political gains”.
With a semblance of normalcy returning to Pakistan politics ahead of national polls later this year, Pakistan’s prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi seems to be on a mission to garner support for hosting the Saarc summit in Islamabad this year.
The holding of the Saarc summit was a key item on the agenda of discussions with Nepal prime minister K.P. Sharma Oli when Abbasi visited Kathamandu earlier this month.
“The two PMs discussed enhancing regional development. And they also agreed to make Saarc a more effective organisation by infusing vigour into it and by taking other initiatives,” Bishnu Rimal, chief adviser to Oli, was quoted as saying by the Kathmandu Post news website.
The talks with Sri Lanka were more recent—they took place last week when Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena visited Islamabad to take part in Pakistan’s founding day celebrations as the chief guest on Friday.
A report in Pakistan’s Nation newspaper, which quoted an official statement, said Sirisena in his talks with Abbasi expressed support for organising the Saarc summit in Pakistan.
Analysts in India say the support expressed by Nepal and Sri Lanka was nothing more than diplomatic posturing.
“I think Nepal and Sri Lanka were talking from the diplomatic perspective of the view that not holding a Saarc summit would weaken the grouping. But it does get Pakistan some brownie points,” said former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal. “The idea of a Saarc summit while Pakistan is seen to support terrorism will not appeal to India and also to Bangladesh I think,” he said.
The thinking in New Delhi is that Saarc so far has not been able to achieve its potential due to Pakistan blocking connectivity projects proposed by India. A Saarc motor vehicles agreement and a proposal to link all Saarc countries via railway have been stuck since the last summit in Kathmandu in 2014.
Last October, then foreign secretary S. Jaishankar told a conference in New Delhi that “one country” in the region was out of sync with the others on issues of terrorism and connectivity.
“Neighbours need to be connected, but if you look at the vehicle on which all had expectations (it) was SAARC. But the SAARC vehicle has sort of jammed because of two big issues – terrorism and connectivity… where all countries are not on the same page, but specifically one country is not on the same page with others,” Jaishankar had said, without naming Pakistan.