India revisits SAARC to fight COVID-19. Scepticism is in order.

Coronavirus pandemic is on the rise in India

The teleconference today at 5 pm IST between the leaderships of the SAARC countries is a rare event in regional cooperation. 

After an interlude of nearly six years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is once again networking with India’s neighbours in a SAARC setting. He had sprung a surprise in May 2014 when he invited the South Asian leaders to his inaugural in Delhi, assuming office as prime minister. 

It generated hopes and expectations that Modi would reset the disjointed framework of India’s relations with its neighbours. Typically, Modi gave a catchy title to his venture — ‘Neighbourhood First’. 

However, ‘Neighbourhood First’ turned out to be a great flop. Hopes were dashed when Delhi scuttled the dialogue with Pakistan on the flimsiest of excuses, which in turn vitiated the climate of regional cooperation. 

Soon after, Delhi joined the Anglo-American project to overthrow the elected government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka. Then came the disastrous venture to force a ‘Hindu constitution’ on Nepal which met with a resistance that in turn provoked Delhi to impose a cruel embargo on that land-locked impoverished country. 

The high noon was reached when Modi refused to attend the SAARC summit in Pakistan, thereby undermining the event scheduled to be held on 15-19 November 2016 and dealing a devastating blow to the regional body. 

True, India’s second regime change project in its neighbourhood succeeded in Maldives last year, but two major setbacks since then makes that triumph look a mere punctuation in the free fall of the Neighbourhood First policy. 

The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the threat to eliminate the ‘termites’ who migrated to India from Bangladesh have rocked the transparency and mutual confidence in the relationship with Dhaka, which has virtually mothballed all high-level contacts with India lately. Second, India lost the ‘great game’ in Afghanistan and is marginalised in the Afghan peace process. 

Suffice to say, today’s teleconference will take place at an inflection point in regional politics. Prima facie, PM’s very use of the explosive word ‘SAARC’ in his tweet implies that Delhi is probably having a rethink on the regional body’s relevance and potential in regional politics. If so, this is a brilliant initiative pegged on the timely COVID-19.  

India is singularly fortunate that it is surrounded by neighbours who are forever willing to forgive its hubris and hegemonist attitudes. Indeed, Modi’s initiative met with positive response from all SAARC countries — especially, Pakistan, which was determined to respond within the day, accepting the invitation from Delhi. 

What could be Pakistan’s motivations? Isn’t this a particularly bad time for Imran Khan to be seen consorting with Modi, since it runs the risk of debilitating Pakistan’s campaign on Kashmir and the rise of ‘fascist Supremacist’ Hindu fundamentalists in India? 

To be sure, Islamabad weighed the pros and cons. 

It couldn’t have been lost on the decision-makers that Modi’s proposal coincided with the unexpected release of the former J&K chief minister Farooq Abdullah after over 6 months of detention, a far-reaching move that has profound implications for the situation in J&K and for India-Pakistan relations. (Islamabad has not reacted to Abdullah’s release from detention.)  

Pakistan remains interested on engagement with India. But on the other hand, the trust deficit is so total that Islamabad has played safe by deputing Iran Khan’s special assistant as Modi’s interlocutor in the video conferencing. Pakistan is testing the water. 

Hopefully, Modi’s ‘talking points’ will make the videoconference a substantive diplomatic event to improve India-Pakistan relations. 

As for COVD-19, India has serious limitations to be a flag carrier in the global fight against the virus. India’s healthcare system is dilapidated after decades of neglect. India spends less than 1.5% of its GDP on healthcare, which is one of the lowest in the world. One recent commentary began like this: 

“India’s mass poverty, teeming slums, and poor to non-existent public infrastructure provide an ideal environment for the coronavirus to quickly spread and produce a human catastrophe threatening the lives of millions. Yet Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party government are stubbornly refusing to mobilise significant state resources to halt the spread of the virus, let alone expropriating resources from the rich and their private hospitals to protect the population.” 

Such harsh criticism cannot be faulted. Therefore, don’t ask what is it that India can do for its South Asian neighbours in fighting COVID-19; ask what India can do for itself. 

Will the videoconference end up as yet another exercise in grandstanding by the Modi government? Some scepticism is in order. The ruling elites have an uncanny knack to bury national narratives through tactical ploys like  digressions and de tours. 

Is the diplomatic initiative on COVID-19 a ploy to divert attention from the dismal state of the economy, the raging anti-CAA, anti-NRC agitations or the horrific Delhi communal riots recently that are widely believed, within the country and abroad, to have been a planned pogrom against Muslims? 

The point is, India’s credential to lead the charge of the light brigade against COVID-19 on the global stage is debatable when we don’t even know the actual scale of the current prevalence of the coronavirus in ‘real’ India. 

In our country of 1.3 billion people, just 6,700 people have been tested for the disease. And yet we propose to ‘set an example to the world’.