Manmohan Singh and Yusuf Raza Gilani hold the key to South Asia’s progress

By Sanjaya Baru for The Business Standard

The world is convinced that the 21st century will be Asia’s century. The only question is whether it will be only East Asia’s century or South Asia’s as well.

China’s great moderniser Deng Xiaoping famously told the late Rajiv Gandhi that “the 21st century can only be the Asian century if India and China combine to make it so”. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh can well tell his Pakistani counterpart this week that the only way South Asia can become a vibrant element of the new Asian century is if India and Pakistan combine to make it so.

As leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) meet later this week in Bhutan, they must all ask themselves where this important part of Asia is headed, even as Asia to our East moves relentlessly forward.

Do any of Saarc’s members have a future that can be truly independent of their South Asian identity? Hardly. Can Pakistan hope to be part of a dynamic and rising Asia without resolving its problems at home and with India? Impossible. Can India sustain high growth for long, like China, without a more cooperative relationship with its neighbours, including Pakistan? Unlikely.

At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, South Asia stands once again at a cross roads. It can go forward, along with the more dynamic economies of East Asia, and emerge as the second engine of global growth by the middle of the century, or it can remain in a low-level equilibrium of poverty, conflict and perpetual instability.

If there are any political leaders or strategic analysts in any of the South Asian countries who think that their country can break loose from the neighbourhood and have a rosy future irrespective of what happens in the region, they live in a world of make believe.

The region has had such leaders before. Many in Pakistan thought they could delink from South Asia and attach themselves to the richer Arab and Islamic world to their west. Some in India thought New Delhi too can delink itself from its neighbourhood and “Look East” for prosperity. South Asia’s smaller countries also had fanciful notions of their individual autonomy. Some, like the Maoists in Nepal and the Sinhala chauvinists in Sri Lanka, still see a future for themselves independent of the “Mother Continent”.

The saner lot, even in Pakistan, recognise that what geography and economics propose, mere politics cannot dispose.

If Saarc has to be revived and made a more dynamic regional organisation, then India and Pakistan must get their act together. Both countries have huge internal problems and there are constituencies for peace in both countries, just as there are constituencies for exporting domestic problems across the border in both. Pakistan has used terror to thwart India’s progress, but the elephant moves on at a handsome pace of 8 per cent and more, even as Pakistan has slowed down to 2-3 per cent growth in recent years.

The last few years have, however, shown that the two neighbours owe it to their own people and their region as a whole to amicably resolve their differences, if each of the two countries and the region as a whole have to move forward.

The starting point of any meaningful dialogue between India and Pakistan is for the two to recognise each other’s concerns. Pakistan must demonstrate much greater understanding of India’s concerns about cross-border terrorism and the need to convince Indian public opinion about its sincerity in dealing with the planners and perpetrators of the 26/11 Mumbai and several other terrorist attacks.

Equally, India must address Pakistan’s genuine fears about river water utilisation and deal convincingly with the issue of Kashmir. Pakistan must rid itself of baseless fears about Indian attempts to destabilise it because any destabilisation of Pakistan can only hurt India even more.

The dialogue between Dr Singh and former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf began with the mutual acknowledgment of these realities and each other’s concerns. It reached a critical point of mutual agreement when President Musharraf got dethroned.

It appears Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani is fighting shy of picking up the threads from where President Musharraf had left them off. Much water has flown down the Indus and US President Barack Obama’s AfPak policy has muddied the waters. It has certainly encouraged Pakistan to overplay its hand.

Dr Singh should remind his counterpart that despite all the money the US is pouring into Pakistan, its economy is in doldrums, with mounting debt, 3 per cent growth and 9 per cent inflation. Pakistan has itself become a victim of the jihadi terrorism and internal conflict.

If realism on Pakistan’s part implies getting a reality check on India’s relative size and success, realism on India’s part implies coming to terms with Pakistan’s power to be a spoiler. Dr Singh and Mr Musharraf came around to getting a balanced and correct view of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. They worked out a realistic modus vivendi. Mr Gilani and his friends in the Pakistan army must catch up and get real.

A realistic and pragmatic leadership in the region is one which tries to resolve cross-border issues so that domestic problems can be handled better. The challenge for every Saarc government is at home and unless domestic problems are tackled, the region will not progress or congeal.

India and Pakistan bear a special responsibility to revitalise Saarc as the region’s biggest nations. The India-Pakistan quarrel has made Saarc non-functional. A resolution of the disputes between the two is vital to the region’s development.

It was in April 2005 that Dr Singh and Mr Musharraf began writing a new chapter in South Asian history. April 2010 would be a good month to get that project back on track.

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