New Delhi: Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar’s four-nation SAARC Yatra has given a fillip to India’s outreach to neighbours, more so with Pakistan, say experts. Starting March 1, Jaishankar visited Bhutan, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, spending a day in each country, in the first phase of his journey to the eight-nation South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations.
Former diplomat Sheel Kant Sharma, who served as secretary general of SAARC, says the trip was a “very good move”, especially as the last SAARC summit took place in November in Nepal with the general understanding that members would work to strengthen the South Asian bloc. “And India has taken the initiative to again meet and talk to people and activate the whole SAARC paradigm. In that sense it is good,” Sharma told.
He said that with Pakistan being the next chair of SAARC, “it is incumbent on Pakistan to also be constructive so that their summit will be successful next year”. “When Pakistan was the chair in 2004, we managed to sign the SAFTA (South Asian Free Trade Area), sign the SAARC social charter, lots of big steps were taken at the Islamabad summit. “I feel that the initiative (to send Jaishankar) is very good and it will activate people to think about next year and prepare for it so that some big steps are taken.”
Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, who is chair of the parliamentary standing committee on external affairs, said the SAARC yatra “is a very good initiative”. “It is very important that we develop and maintain close relations with our immediate neighbours, and to do this early in the tenure is a very valuable indication of the priorities the foreign secretary attaches to our relations with neighbours,” Tharoor told.
“Second, to also speak to Pakistan where our dialogue process has been stalled for some time could indeed be valuable, provided indeed that the results of the visit, I don’t know what the results are, but my gut instinct is that this was a trip in which there may or may not have been talks about talks,” he said. Former Indian envoy to Pakistan G. Parthasarathy told IANS that the shots in Pakistan were called by the army, and thus the movement forward in SAARC and bilateral ties can only be incremental. “Let’s be real. Pakistan has a government which cannot deliver, the policies are run by the army…
“Even diplomacy and world leaders from China, to the British, to the Americans, do business with (army chief) Raheel Sharif as though he is the National Security Adviser and the foreign minister of Pakistan,” he said. “What we can do is look for incremental movement forward,” he said, adding Jaishankar was likely to have suggested to his Pakistani counterpart Aizaz Chowdhury a meeting between the directors general of military operations (DGMOs) and the border security force commanders of the two countries.
“Now Pakistan has to make a choice – does it want it or doesn’t it?” Parthasarathy recalled then Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf’s pledge that territory with Pakistan would not be used for terrorism against India. “I don’t think (Prime Minister) Nawaz Sharif is prepared to reiterate that commitment nor is Raheel Sharif. So, incremental movement forward, yes.” The SAARC Yatra was a “good thing because right now everybody, led by the Americans, are blaming us for not engaging (with Pakistan)”, he said. “So we’re telling the world we are engaging the whole region, not just Pakistan.”