South Asian regionalism is an elusive myth that keeps spasmodically surfacing every now and then generated more by external stimuli than any earnest aspirations from within the region. The long years of the existence of SAARC and its inability to make any substantial progress in preventing conflict or contributing substantially to economic development of the South Asia region is a vivid indicator of the stark reality that the region is not yet ready politically for the type of regionalism that prevails in Europe. Countries of South Asia today are plagued either by Islamist terrorism or ethnic insurgencies which create turbulence for the entire region, yet what has been the record of SAARC as a regional organization to get South Asian nations band together to combat these disruptive challenges?
For some inexplicable reason a lot of money is pumped in India especially by Western NGOs and think-tanks proclaiming to be promoting peace in organizing seminars and events on South Asian regionalism. One does not witness a comparable effort by them for promoting Middle East regionalism or Asia Pacific regionalism.
Even taking their intentions as pious one needs to point out that any concept divorced from existing ground realities and which determine the future potential towards this end for the foreseeable future is destined to fail. Surely reams of papers after such seminars can be brought out after such seminars to propagate as to what a promising future awaits South Asia if it were only to emulate the regional cooperation and integration of the European Union or that of ASEAN.
South Asia is totally different from the European Union in multiple ways and the multiplicity of divisive challenges that exist in South Asia are intractable. The short list enumerated below would highlight the glaring divide that exists in South Asia:
- India looms large by its geographical size of sub-continental proportions in South Asia. This glaring asymmetry generates insecurities in the other South Asian countries and these insecurities are of not India's creation.
- Politically, India today is an ascendant power in the global power game. The UNITED States and China grudgingly are growingly becoming more respectful of India' strategic sensitivity in South Asia. This robs other South Asian countries especially Pakistan as a spoiler state to play its erstwhile patrons against India.
- Economically, India surged ahead of its neighbors in terms of economic strengths, economic development and economic potential. While the world recognizes that today the global economy is interdependent the South Asian countries are still reluctant to integrate their economies or plug-in into India's economic strengths for their own economic development.
- South Asia unlike Europe does not present a picture of regional commonality of religion and social and cultural outlook. In fact religion was used as the rationale to divide India in 1947 and create Pakistan which as a homeland for Indian Muslims stood further divided in 1971 with the creation of Bangladesh.
- South Asia still continues to be a cockpit of international balance of power politics played by extra-regional powers bent on arresting India's rise in power and there are willing accomplices in South Asia to join them in this game.
The European Union has emerged as a region of better comparative political maturity and that too has emerged after centuries of conflict, disharmony.
Political divides. It was economic imperatives that hastened their regional cooperation and integration. The South Asian nations for reasons pointed out above have not shown any urgency in recognizing the economic imperatives. In fact some like Pakistan presume that refusal to economically cooperate with India provides them with political leverage.
Political maturity, with the exception of India is virtually absent amongst the nations of South Asia as most of them are at odds with or in crisis of their identities and therefore they are in a nascent stage of political development.
ASEAN was brought together less by economic compulsions and more by security compulsions. Geo-strategically located the region was in the strategic cynosure of USA, China and Japan and therefore received outsized political attention from them. It cannot be a model for regional cooperation in South Asia because its biggest advantage lay in the fact that there were no glaring geographical, economic and political asymmetries within the region.
South Asian regionalism for the foreseeable future therefore is a good pastime for academic discussions but is an elusive myth which may take decades to materialize till Pakistan strategically realizes that it is not the equal of India in any dimensions. It is for this reason that India has been prompted to explore other alternatives for regional cooperation with Bangladesh, Myanmar etc.