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Regionalism in South Asia

SAARC: The Enigma of Institutionalised Regional Politics Francesco Obino Twenty five years after its foundation, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is still not considered as a major agent of development, change or stability in the complex and volatile reality of the subcontinent. Why has the progress been so slow? Kishore C Dash in his book Regionalism in South Asia attempts an explanation. Notably, he succeeds in stirring the waters of an otherwise stagnating scholarly debate on regionalism in south Asia.


SAARC: The Enigma of how events (one for all: ethnic regionalism) both labelled and tackled as a bilateral
Institutionalised Regional Politics issue, prove to be, over and over, single instances of issues which are endemic to the
region itself and cross the imaginary lines
of the domestic and foreign policy realms.
Francesco Obino In other words, bilateralism clashes with

wenty five years after its foundation, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is still not considered as a major agent of development, change or stability in the complex and volatile reality of the subcontinent. Why has the progress been so slow?

Kishore C Dash in his book Regionalism in South Asia attempts an explanation. Notably, he succeeds in stirring the waters of an otherwise stagnating scholarly debate on regionalism in south Asia.

When it comes to SAARC, in fact, commentators are left confused, observers indifferent. While the press knows to expect regular “informal” diplomacy efforts on the sidelines of SAARC meetings and summits, scholars still struggle to give SAARC a clear identity, a role and a proper position in the politics of the region. Common questions are: is SAARC anything more than an intergovernmental agency with a vague, non-controversial mandate and no power to implement the decisions of its members? Has it got any agency or leverage on issues of common concern? Is it just an instrument south Asian nations play against each other or is it a viable platform for collaboration? Is it just a convenient pretext to meet on the sidelines at the highest level? And ultimately, will SAARC ever be a supranational political regional institution with defined interests, a budget and effective powers as other regional institutions, first of all the European Union?

For some reason, we are still struggling to understand the full picture.

Dash starts his analysis of SAARC development process with an insightful observation: issues affecting two or more countries in south Asia cannot be categorised as either domestic or foreign policy issues. In fact, regional issues appear to be – from the outset – crosscutting and shared, making a wider and multilayered process of regional cooperation necessary. Starting from this notion, he draws the implications on regional cooperation as a process. Dash

Regionalism in South Asia: Negotiating Cooperation, Institutional Structures by Kishore C Dash (London: Routledge), first Indian reprint, 2009; pp xii + 246, price not mentioned.

argues that if we are to look at who makes SAARC in the long term, no sensible analysis can disregard the importance of domestic constituencies, their political leverage, interests, and their interactions with government within domestic institutional structures. Domestic constituencies as much as national governments are active parts of the decision-making processes that define where SAARC is going as an institution, what it is to deliver and how.

Dash introduces a new perspective through which the domestic support of elites – whether military, social or economic

  • and the critical power-retaining logic of domestic politics, are a major variable in the evolution of regionalism in south Asia.
  • After a brief overview of the main theoretical approaches to regionalism available in the literature, and their limitations with regard to south Asia (Introduction), Dash writes critically from Chapter 1 to Chapter 6 through an attentive review of historical, political, economic facts, trends and events, which have made the history of south Asia after 1947. Dash highlights how these events – from bilateral confrontation, nuclear menaces and wars to the evolution of the countries, institutions, civil societies and the states’ own strategic positioning vis-à-vis their neighbours, particularly India
  • are to be understood today in the context and limits of SAARC. Yet, the complex political heritage of the subcontinent, dominated, and at the same time, trapped into “the disparate nature of the region and Indo-Pakistani antagonism” (p 109), needs to be analysed through the lens of dome stic
  • yet not uniquely bilateral – politics.
  • By exploring the domestic dimension of regional politics for each south Asian player separately – tackling perceptions, misconceptions and strategy – he demonstrates regional concerns and seems to result in an inherently flawed approach to both analysis and action in south Asian cooperation.

    Indifferent Elites

    Dash brings the core contribution of his work when he analyses and summarises the outcomes of an impressive 780 interviews conducted with members of the economic, social and political elites of south Asia between 2002 and 2004 (Chapter 7). He aims to assess the utilitarian and affective allegiances of elites towards regional cooperation, and ultimately, senses their level of understanding of south Asia as a single political space. The main findings are, apparently, unsurprising: domestic elites’ support for SAARC remains limited, non-committal, most are indifferent even though not completely pessimistic, and the majority does not support the myth of a south Asian identity.

    SAARC seems to have a serious “credibility gap” problem affecting regional elites, and as a consequence, potentially hindering regional governments in search of stronger support for a deeper institutional cooperation. The widespread insecurity surrounding the leadership role of India in the region and the ever-recurring threat of Indo-Pakistani confrontation are held to be the major factors hampering the development of SAARC.

    What is worth of notice, nevertheless, is that in Dash’s survey 78% of interviewees spot in the “informal” political diplomacy, the most beneficial effect of SAARC. Again, we are faced with a split understanding of SAARC: on the one side, an institution with an official mandate for cooperation, on the other, a space where the political needs of the regional are dealt with, informally.

    If SAARC, as a formal institution, has rated low in the elites’ assessment, its contribution to regional politics is still held highly. What comes out, yet indirectly of the data Dash provides us with, is the pragmatic understanding of regional cooperation as a complex and necessary process of collaboration on political regional issues, or a “politics first” practice. In this regard,

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    not only south Asian elites understand the process, but they support it.

    While Dash calls for a larger cooperation in economic and security matters to boost the elites’ utilitarian evaluation of SAARC, we should also take note that he touches upon the reasons why SAARC still exists after a quarter of a century, and how the organisation has survived for 25 years as something more than just an helpless bureaucracy.

    If Dash had gone a step forward, he could have shown how SAARC has indeed reflected the most urgent needs of the region by offering, with the support of elites, a flexible space and format for political negotiations. And this would have been what, till now and yet unofficially, political leaders have understood and made of SAARC in their regular diplomatic rendezvous on the sidelines of SAARC’s institutional activities.


    In a quarter of a century, SAARC attracted high hopes and disinterest in similar ways, offering highly contradictory images to its keen observers and barely any image of itself to the masses of the subcontinent.

    What Dash achieves in his book is worth of notice for at least two valuable reasons: first, he links SAARC (and the complex process underpinning its development and outcomes) back to the domestic politics of


    south Asian countries – drifting away, if not completely, from a scholarship dominated by traditional foreign policy debates more keen on tracking extra-regional connections than carving any role for domestic actors.

    Through primary and secondary sources, he makes a case for the inherently important role domestic elites play in influencing their respective governments on issues of regional cooperation. Dash ultimately argues that SAARC will have to reflect to a large degree the priorities of these elites and will need a political validation “at home” to become anything close to an institution of regional cooperation with an impact on politics, development, stability and security. Arguably, this logic has been effective with regard to “informal” diplomacy efforts so far.

    Second, he articulates effectively the complexity of both explaining and understanding SAARC as a single agency, i e, defining its identity, role and position coherently. SAARC is multilateral and apolitical in nature and scope, but home to more informal bilateral diplomacy than has ever happened in the region since 1947. Also, it lacks an official mandate to tackle those very pressing “controversial and bilateral issues” which, have kept it alive since its foundation.

    Ultimately, Dash epitomises in his work the many challenges left to the scholars in



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    Economic & Political Weekly

    the field, both by addressing some of them and by perpetuating others. These are, for example, the insufficient fit of analytical frameworks of regional cooperation developed for other regional contexts to address the challenges of south Asia; the lack of a theoretical framework and a narrative that helps looking at regional cooperation in south Asia beyond bilateral foreign policy concerns; and ultimately, the unreconciled double nature of SAARC as a thriving “informal” diplomacy forum and a deceivingly ineffectual formal cooperation and development platform.

    These are all points which need to be addressed further to understand and explain why and how SAARC is still very much alive after 25 years, and where it is likely to be in another 25 years. Also, these are the questions to be answered if an articulate and overall understanding of south Asia as a political entity is to be ever reached in a non-contradictory, nonfragmented manner.

    Dash has authored a book which is an important step forward in this direction, and a good food for thought for students and scholars alike.

    Francesco Obino ( is a research scholar in international relations at the London School of Economics.




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