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Reality check shows case for new South Asian organization including China

TOP NEWS-ENG-22-09-2020
A view of famous saint Shah Rukhne Alam shrine in Multan, Pakistan. The shrine is considered to be the earliest example of Tughluq architecture, and is one of the most impressive shrines in South Asia

India it seems is the most anxious country in South Asia. Its traditional sway over the region is being challenged as other countries here are rising. It is not 1947 when India was born nor is it 1971 when India fashioned the region its way.

However, while 1971 was a great year it also marked the beginning of change. A new state Bangladesh was bornand its birth brought about changes in the region. Changes in South Asia have now turned from a whiff to a strong smell increasing in intensity in the last decade.

Previously, India’s neighbors had formed and tried to functionalize the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), but India ended the institution, backing the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) instead. But BIMSTEC is not a South Asian brand. No South Asian representation exists collectively anymore.

The catalyst for the ‘crisis’ was the dramatic rise of China and its impact on the South Asian region. Everyone wanted to be free and all wanted to use an enthusiastic China to usher that change. A new South Asia has emerged, a South Asia which doesn't want old style domination which India enjoyed for long. It has been easy to dismantle SAARC as it was a weak organization.

Rise of Tele Diplomacy  

The tele-talk between Prime Ministers of Bangladesh and Pakistan, Sheikh Hasina and Imran Khan, gained more currency than what it was worth, largely thanks to the Indian and Pakistani media. The former was insecure and the latter was gloating. In Bangladesh itself, the tele-talk made almost no waves because Pakistan is far away in Bangladesh’s mind. At any rate, a pro-Pakistan stance on the part of Hasina is out of the question as anti-Pakistanism is her main stock in trade in Bangladesh politics. A section of the Indian media, almost childishly naive, accused the government's adviser Salman Rahman of engineering the pro-Pakistan policy. It's this limited understanding of Bangladesh politics that has made the Indian media irrelevant in Bangladesh. 

India does have several groups in Bangladesh including the Ghatak Dalal Committee which is focused on bringing the collaborators of 1971 to justice. However, in the last month, when Sino-Indo tension escalated and speculation was high about the sudden visit of India's Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, the public mood was clearly anti-Indian.

Sheikh Hasina also had a chat with the Nepalese Prime Minister K.P. Oli but it was about supply of fertilizers. This is significant but a point which India is missing. Like Pakistan, India is obsessed with Kashmir, border conflicts and both are hoping for each other's destruction. Other issues are ignored. 

But the priorities in the rest of South Asia are different. These countries are very focused on economics and not much else. India wants politics and the realization of a Pakistan-free South Asia. The way it plays with the Muslim minority card shows it is playing politics of a variety that generates instability within the country and the region also.

Playing politics of the older variety 

South Asia is not interested in that because, in a strange way, barring Pakistan and India, other countries have moved forward beyond hate politics. It's this that is making a big difference. India and Pakistan are stuck in a political quagmire that doesn't exist for the rest. At this juncture enters China.

China offers economic help and all the debt trap gloom and doom have had no impact in South Asia. In a country like Bangladesh in which threats to sovereignty from external powers including India and even Myanmar have little meaning, BRI is welcomed without such debate. 

The five countries of South Asia aren't going to war against anyone including China. All they want is investment and China is willing to invest. India's internal politics affects Bangladesh, but China is far away and its anti Uighur policy is on many minds but not most. China is a trade partner and not a partner for ‘life’ like India is.

It's this fundamental difference that has made SAARC and BIMSTEC both unnecessary. A new configuration that is both functional and inclusive is needed. It may have to include China too as it has become a default South Asian state given its links.

South Asia is realizing itself. The old world is over but India has not yet come to terms with this new reality it seems.