Fracturing South Asia into action

South Asians integrate the least with each other as a region. Joyeeta Bhattacharjee of ORF, who studies the region, puts it down to fear of Indian domination (India accounts for 80% of the combined GDP and 74% of the combined population), historical mistrust (a colonial legacy) and targeted terrorism (a recent innovation of war by other means). Add to that a near universal reluctance to put trade above strategic diplomacy.

Ancient links but modern incentives

More recently, a muscular China has queered the pitch further for nascent regionalism by inducing Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka to make an impossible choice between its somewhat exaggerated promises of a river of Yuan flowing into these economies versus the less tangible, long term, virtues of aligning with India’s soft power – democratic credentials, absence of territorial jingoism; ancient cultural links – Hinduism with Nepal, Buddhism with Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka and historical links with Bangladesh, from the Mukti Bahini days when Indians fought and died with Bangladeshis for their freedom from the Pakistani Panjabi yoke.

Geopolitical discord and happy regional ties do not mix

It is no wonder then that substantive regionalism has yet to mature in South Asia. The political freeze between Pakistan and India since 2016, after the Uri terror attack, gives impetus to the concept of fractured regionalism. Professor Mahendra P. Lama of Jawaharlal Nehru University favours the concept of “Eastern South Asia” – Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and the eastern and north eastern border states of India (BBIN). Substantive activity to enlarge connectivity and energy trade exists through bilateral and trilateral negotiations. 

The peaceable settlement of border issues between Bangladesh and India is an illustration of the accommodative stance in the East versus entrenched positions on our Northern and Western borders.

Isolate the virus of persistent political discord

Could the fracturing of South Asia help? A western sub region (Maldives, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Northern and Western India) where sub-regional links are stagnant and “Eastern South Asia” (ESA) with India as the transit hub spanning both sub regions.

The ponderously titled Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral and Technical Cooperation (BIMSTEC) has been functional since 1997. It consists of five member countries, physically located around the Bay of Bengal – India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand and two land locked countries – Nepal and Bhutan, for whom the Bay is a strategic necessity for maritime access. 

BBIN optimists think of the BIMSTEC as a bridge to ASEAN for importing some of the positive features of economic cooperation and not merely a substitute for the moribund South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). 

Purists baulk at the overlapping jurisdictions of sub-regional organisations – BBINS with BIMSTEC. But walking around an intractable problem like SAARC, rather than confronting it head on, is par for the course in Asia. 

South Asia a case study in hesitant regionalism

SAARC, BIMSTEC or ESA/BBIN all reflect the hesitant nature of South Asian regionalism which is basically G2G or governments coming together. 

This model of “Presidential of Prime Ministerial” regional diplomacy, is far behind Europe’s tripartite regional model. The Council of Ministers and its permanent secretariat – the European Commission have been cloned widely as regional executive agencies like BIMSTEC.  

The second regional mechanism is the European Parliament which is directly elected by citizens and has significant decision making, budgetary and oversight powers over the executive branch. This mechanism finds weaker clones in all regional groupings except South Asia. 

The third regional mechanism in Europe, upholding the rule of law, is the Court of Justice which has not been replicated.

Can inter-parliamentary diplomacy break the logjam?

It would be a stretch to advocate that merely replicating the trappings of the European Parliament (EP) is the missing link towards regionalism in South Asia. 

Parliamentary regionalism is underdeveloped across all developing country regions. The African Parliament (AP) was created in 2004 but its membership is not directly elected by citizens. It remains a deliberative, not a decision-making body. 

South East Asia has had an interparliamentary organisation since 1997 and the ASEAN Inter Parliamentary Assembly (AIPA) since 2007 but it is not directly elected, nor does it have decision-making powers. 

In South America, only one of the four inter parliamentary bodies is directly elected (the central American Parliament) and all four are deliberative not decision-making bodies- Andres Malmud and Luis de Souza (2007).

Despite no regional inter parliamentary body achieving close to the institutional sophistication of the European Parliament, there are advantages in having an inter-parliamentary body rather than doing without one as in South Asia.

Parliaments are a forum for debate and discussion says Shamsher Sheriff, a retired Secretary-General of the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of India) and an honorary member of the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s Association of Secretary Generals of Parliaments. They coalesce regional interests and even regional parties in a manner which regional executive bodies cannot. 

Observers of the EP remark tongue in cheek that regional parliaments also help in putting out-of-power politicians and political opponents to productive use.

Regional Parliaments with tight mandates around tangible deliverables can club regional interests

Their value add is enhanced if their mandate is narrowly focused on select regional issues rather than around fuzzier higher objectives like mitigating climate change. 

The Common Assembly of Europe (the precursor to the EP) was created in 1952 to coordinate the seamless production and supply of coal and steel – both essential inputs in the rebuilding of post war Europe. From such humble “bread and butter” beginnings, it expanded its scope to be reconstituted with its members directly elected (1975) thereby becoming the flag bearers of universal rights and citizen oversight over the executive.  

“Presidential” regional diplomacy in South Asia has been a mixed bag. Why not add inter-parliamentary diplomacy to enlarge and deepen regionalism. 

The Eastern South Asia group (BBIN), could resolve, as a sub-region within BIMSTEC, to forge an interparliamentary group to enlarge cooperation say in cross border energy trade, digital security, space applications and green technology. Myanmar and Thailand could join as observers to internalise the lessons learnt in AIPA. 

The US boosted availability and lowered the price of oil by fracturing its hydrocarbon resources. Fracturing South Asia into its “workable” segments can similarly accelerate high quality sub-regional integration and the inter-regional connect with ASEAN and AIPA.

Adapted from the authors opinion piece in TOI Blogs September 6, 2020

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