NEW DELHI - South Asian leaders meeting in Nepal for a summit called for closer integration of the region. As always, that goal was hampered by the decades-old hostility between India and Pakistan.
The vision spelled out by leaders of eight countries that make up the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in Kathmandu on Wednesday had a common thread: the need to combat poverty and terrorism by working more closely with each other.
Saying that the reaction to SAARC is usually cynicism and scepticism, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stressed the need to deepen integration in South Asia.
“For India, our vision for the region rests on five pillars - trade, investment, assistance, cooperation in every area, contacts between our people - and, all through seamless connectivity. This is the call of our times,” Modi said.
He promised that India would take the lead by stepping up facilities at borders, making it easier to get business visas and simplifying procedures. South Asian countries conduct a meager five percent of their total trade with each other.
But with no progress by India and Pakistan in breaking the ice between them, critics questioned how South Asia can become more integrated. Hopes that the SAARC meeting in Nepal would set the stage for a thaw between the region’s two countries have failed to materialize so far.
The Indian Prime Minister was to meet heads of all countries on the sidelines of the summit barring his Pakistani counterpart.
In what many observers saw as an oblique reference to India, Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, stressed the need for “trust”.
“My vision for our region is a dispute-free South Asia where instead of fighting each other we jointly fight poverty, illiteracy, disease, malnourishment and unemployment," he said. "We invest in our youth to unleash their creativity talent and enterprise. We need our bonds of trust so that we can solve our problems."
However, each side appears to have put the onus on the other to build trust. The Pakistani Prime Minister indicated that the “ball is now in India’s court” to restart talks while New Delhi said it was only interested in a “meaningful dialogue.”
Their ties have been in a deep freeze since New Delhi called off talks with Islamabad in August. The worst cross-border violence in a decade in Kashmir has soured relations further.
The difficulties of SAARC making progress are apparent. There was no consensus on three key pacts to integrate energy grids and free up rail and road movement. Indian officials said that Pakistan had indicated it needed more time.
Meanwhile, India rejected a suggestion, backed by Pakistan, that China’s status should be raised from “observer” in SAARC. The group consists of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Maldives and Afghanistan.
The summit coincided with the sixth anniversary of terror strikes in India’s financial hub, Mumbai, in which 166 people were killed in an attack blamed on the Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Prime Minister Modi recalled the attack as he spoke in Nepal. “Today, as we remember the horror of the terror attack in Mumbai in 2008, we feel the endless pain of lost lives," he said. "Let us work together to fulfil the pledge we have taken to combat terrorism and trans-national crimes.”
Besides their dispute over the Himalayan region of Kashmir, India and Pakistan’s relations have been soured by New Delhi’s accusations that Pakistan-based militants mount terror strikes in India - an allegation Islamabad denies.