On Modi’s invite, South Asian leaders plan video-call to unite against coronavirus

Regional cooperation has been largely absent due to India-Pak tensions

It may not be love in the times of coronavirus, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi hinted at a C-word that has remained absent from the regional grouping of the South Asian Association for a while—cooperation. In a tweet that has already had a ripple effect, Modi suggested that the region cooperate to fight the deadly virus.
"I would like to propose that the leadership of SAARC nations chalk out a strong strategy to fight coronavirus. We could discuss, via video-conferencing ways to keep our citizens healthy," tweeted Modi. In what could be a positive for the region in the testing times of a pandemic, Modi added,
“South Asia, which is home to a significant number of the global population should leave no stone unturned to ensure our people are healthy.''

The proposal to band together is significant as so far India has been the main opposition against SAARC because of Pakistan.

Modi’s suggestion received traction among members—possibly because video-conferencing ensures that the politics of India-Pakistan will not come into play.
In a tweet, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa thanked Modi for his suggestion and promised to share “learning & best practices'' and to learn from SAARC members. “Let's unite in solidarity during these trying times and keep our citizens safe,” he said.
The President of Maldives, Mohamed Solih, also welcomed the proposal, as did Nepal’s Prime Minister K.P. Oli and Bhutan’s PM Lotay Tshering. “This is what we call leadership. As members of this region, we must come together in such times. Smaller economies are hit harder, so we must coordinate. With your leadership, I have no doubt we will see immediate and impactful outcome. Looking forward to the video conference,'' tweeted Tshering.
The region is yet to feel the full devastating extent of a coronavirus outbreak. Unlike Europe, which has had thousands of reported cases, SAARC so far has remained relatively insulated. India has reported over 70 cases and had its first death on Thursday, while Pakistan has reported 21 cases so far.
The numbers in the rest of the region too, are not very high: Bhutan and Nepal have had one confirmed case each, the Maldives has had eight, and Sri Lanka has had three. Cooperation between the countries in stemming the outbreak could certainly help in battling the disease.

Does this bring hope for a new beginning? The tweet suggests cooperation during a crisis, but does not necessarily mean that India has softened its position on the grouping. That SAARC has been a casualty of the domestic politics of India and Pakistan is no secret.
“You know why SAARC is not prospering, one main reason is the enmity between India and Pakistan, but BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal) and BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) should do better. We have to work harder and in that process things should work better," Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister A. K. Abdul Momen had said in December.

Over the past few years, India has chosen to back BIMSTEC over SAARC. The reason is clear—there is no Pakistan. If Modi's last term was about trying to make a statement of regional cooperation in South Asia, with the heads of state attending his swearing-in; this term, it was BIMSTEC leaders who were invited.
“If you look at why BIMSTEC leaders were invited for PM’s swearing-in, because we see energy, mindset and possibility in BIMSTEC,” he said in an indirect reference to Pakistan, foreign minister S. Jaishankar said at his first public appearance. Jaishankar made it clear that there would be a lot of attention to connectivity in this term and would be directed towards BIMSTEC and not at SAARC.

However, the problems go deeper than just the T-word. “It is not that we have preference...The problem is that if you are talking regionalism, you can't have regionalism without talking connectivity or talking trade,'' Jaishankar said while answering a question over India's choosing BIMSTEC over SAARC at the Centre for Policy Research Dialogues this month. “It is saying I would like to do regional cooperation. But I am not going to allow connectivity but I am not going to give you MFN (Most Favoured Nation), then, obviously, you are not serious.''

The MFN status has been a bone of contention between both countries for years. While there have been numerous studies suggesting trade between the two countries will go a long way to better relations—even a more peaceful one—nothing has moved.

The deep freeze between India and Pakistan has ensured that there was no SAARC summit after Kathmandu 2014. In a meeting of SAARC foreign ministers—on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September 2019—Jaishankar spelt it out. "In our view, elimination of terrorism in all its forms is a pre-condition not only for fruitful cooperation but also for the very survival of the region itself," he said. The meeting was doomed from the start, with Pakistan foreign minister SM Qureshi arriving after Jaishankar had left. Qureshi announced that the next meeting will be held in Islamabad.

Pakistan is still hoping that the meeting, which was to be held in 2016 but was called off after the Uri attack, will be revived. But, India is not budging.
The cooperation that Modi suggests is, in a way, is a winner. It sidesteps the whole venue issue by possibly being over video-conferencing. But, will Pakistan agree?

Source: https://www.theweek.in/news/world/2020/03/13/on-modis-invite-south-asian-leaders-plan-video-call-to-unite-against-coronavirus.html

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