The messages sent by members of SAARC when they withdrew from the 19th SAARC summit points to a growing realisation about Pakistan’s role in cross-border terrorism that has led to mounting instability in the region. This provides an opportune moment for India to lead South Asia into a new direction of cooperation that leaves Pakistan out of the equation.

SAARC cannot function effectively if one of its members is a rogue nation that consistently interferes in the internal affairs of other member countries, uses state and non-state actors to unleash violence and terrorism across it borders, and spreads myths and lies to internationalise bilateral issues all the time.

The effectiveness of the SAARC platform has also been called into question by political experts. Although it has had moderate success in areas such as agriculture, rural development, telecommunications and health, it has not really made a major difference to regional cooperation or international relations on the ground.

The South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) promoted by SAARC is a miserable failure: the intra-SAARC trade amounts to just a little over 1% of SAARC's GDP. In contrast, in the ASEAN region, which is actually smaller than SAARC in terms of the size of their economy, the intra-bloc trade stands at 10% of its GDP.

The SAARC Visa Exemption Scheme, which was launched in 1992 has made no real impact in the lives of those who travel. Visa exemption is only available to a select and elite group of individuals, and even their travel is still monitored closely by immigration authorities. In any case, the current climate of state-sponsored terrorism and state adoption of many non-state actors of terror makes visa exemption a threat to national security.

SAARC has a token representative in the UN as an observer, but very few countries outside the region know that the organisation even exists.

Other regional bodies such as ASEAN and OPEC are vocal and noticeable on world bodies such as the UN and the World Bank, grab the attention of world media, and have strong lobby groups that fight for the rights of their region. SAARC continues to plod along slowly without being noticed internationally after having failed to create any shift in international policy towards the region.

Thus, there has been no major shift in the way member countries of SAARC cooperate in trade, travel or international lobbying. 

This is the right time to let SAARC die a natural death. Pakistan has been maintaining that the 19th summit has been postponed, but will be held in Pakistan at an appropriate time. India’s political leadership needs to call off Pakistan’s bluff.

The way to do that would be for India to call a high-profile summit without invoking the SAARC brand, by inviting all South Asian countries other than Pakistan. The meeting should aim to take South Asian Cooperation to a new level.

It should go beyond the current levels of economic, cultural and social cooperation to boldly take India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal, Afghanistan, Maldives and perhaps Myanmar, towards closely conjoined military cooperation, an agenda that has so far been side-lined because of the complexities of Indo-Pak relations.

With Pakistan firmly out of the way, India can deliberate the creation of a South Asian Treaty Organisation (SATO) on the lines of NATO.

NATO, which currently has 28 member states, has clearly outlined the fundamental reason for its existence, which is to to safeguard the freedom and security of its members through political and military means. NATO uses political means by promoting democratic values, encouraging consultation and cooperation on defence and security issues to build trust. Although NATO is equally committed to peaceful resolution of disputes and conflicts, if all other means fail, it will not shy away from using military capacityfor ‘crisis management operations’.

The most interesting part of how NATO will use its military capacity is this: it can use it under a UN mandate, alone, or in cooperation with other countries and international organisations.

By saying it can use military capacity ‘alone’, NATO has certified itself out of seeking a UN mandate. It can invoke military action to manage a crisis involving one or more of its member states without calling upon any other international body. This, combined with the  fact that it has some of the most powerful military forces on the face of this planet, is what makes NATO an international force to reckon with, even though it is an organisation for regional cooperation.

India needs to move away from the political slumber caused by the reactive foreign policy that we have inherited from the various governments that started to rule us immediately after independence. We need to become an international political force that becomes proactively engaged in pushing our regional agenda where it matters most.

 By uniting the military might of the South Asian countries minus Pakistan, SATO which will represent one-fifth of humanity, will become a force to reckon with. Of course, besides military cooperation, SATO can also have other agendas that include social, cultural and economic cooperation. It can also promote a single South Asian identity in the way that ASEAN has successfully been doing for decades. The ASEAN motto is: ‘one vision, one identity, one community’.

However, military cooperation needs to be at the core of SATO and the crucial reason for its existence.Like NATO, member countries of SATO can consider an attack on any member state to be an attack on all of them collectively.

In such a scenario, continuance of current Pakistani interference in Afghanistan, Bangladesh or India, will be seen as an attack on all the member countries of SATO, thus causing a major shift in the foreign policy of all the countries in the region. SATO can also cause China to review some of its anti-India stances in light of the new military relationships in the region.

After the surgical strike against Pakistan by the brave soldiers of the Indian army, there has been a lot of applause, much appreciation and even some gloating. SATO will be the ideal conclusion of the Prime Minister’s robust foreign policy agenda which led to the avenging of our brave soldiers at URI. It will resonate as the just conclusion to our diplomatic, political and military efforts to isolate Pakistan.

Not only will it increase cooperation in the region beyond measure, it will also send a strong signal to Pakistan that state-sponsored terrorism will no longer be taken lying down. The isolation of Pakistan’s terrorism agenda will be total if it becomes the only country left out of a military pact in the region. It will feel finally start to feel the heat regionally and  internationally. The death of SAARC will thus provide a new lease of life to South Asian cooperation.

[About the Author:Ramesh Kallidai is a British expat living in India. He was appointed Commissioner of Integration and Cohesion by the British Cabinet Secretary for Communities, was a member of the London Criminal Justice Board IAG, a member of the Diamond Advisory Committee of the Metropolitan Police London, and an advisor to various British government departments such as  the Home Office on public policy, discrimination and equality. He has presented evidence to Select Committees at the House of Lords and the House of Commons on issues such as anti-terrorism, community relations and religious discrimination. He was the Founder Secretary General of the Hindu Forum of Britain, the largest Hindu umbrella body in Britain, and a member of the Executive Committee of the Interfaith Network UK. Together with the Archbishop of York and the Chief Rabbi of the UK, he has authored a booklet ‘Faith in the Nation’ published by the Institute of Public Policy Research UK.]