NEW DELHI: India is now on a mission mode to create a regional alternative in South Asia minus Pakistan, a day after New Delhi decided to pull out of the Saarc summit in Islamabad in November. As a first step towards this, the Modi government may invite leaders from Afghanistan and Maldives as observers for BRICS-BIMSTEC outreach in Goa on October 16. Internal consultations within the government have already started. Pakistan will not be able to use Saarc as a lever if this oragnisation is established, people familiar with the development said.
After Pakistan stonewalled attempts at integration by not approving Saarc Motor Vehicles and Railways Pact, a better model of regional cooperation in South Asia has been put in place over the past two years. Pakistan is the biggest obstacle to successful functioning of Saarc, said a person familiar with the matter. India has been striving to integrate the other members of the grouping for the past two years. One such sub-regional pact, the Bangladesh-Bhutan-Nepal-India (BBIN) Motor Vehicles Agreement, was signed in 2015 and the first mock run of Dhaka-New Delhi cargo truck happened recently.
The trilateral pact between India, Iran and Afghanistan on Chabahar Port and bilateral agreement between India and Iran on expansion of the port ensured that India will have access to Afghanistan and viceversa bypassing Pakistan.
India and Afghanistan are also putting in place a joint air corridor following Pakistan’s intransigence to provide transit rights. India is also working with Bangladesh to put in place several other bilateral connectivity projects across road, rail, rivers, air and sea to enhance people-to-people contacts and business partnership. Similarly Nepal and India have been linked with a Delhi-Kathmandu bus service since 2014.
Regional integration has been the priority of the Modi government since it took office in May 2014 amid the presence of regional leaders, including Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif. Modi has also invited six leaders of BIMSTEC grouping for the BRICS BIMSTEC outreach meet. While BIMSTEC comprises two countries — Thailand and Myanmar — beyond South Asia — the grouping is yet another mechanism for regional integration. Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina, PM of Bhutan, Myanmar’s state councillor Aung Saan Syu Kyi, Nepal PM Prachanda and top Thailand leader are scheduled to attend the meet.
Recent weeks have seen a flurry of visits to India from the neighbourhood. Prachanda, whose return to power as Nepal’s PM has put relations back on track, was in New Delhi on a four-day visit and he was preceded by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. In early December India is hosting Heart of Asia conference and Ghani has been invited yet again to visit Amritsar.