Pandemic or no pandemic, for Pakistan, the core issue is Kashmir. For this reason, Pakistan missed a golden opportunity offered by India to revive the moribund South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). When Prime Minister Imran Khan decided not to attend the video conference initiated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it appeared that he did not want to vitiate the atmosphere by raising bilateral issues, but it turned out that even the State Minister of Health Zafar Mirza was an expert on Kashmir. He called for an immediate lifting of the “lockdown” there to allow virus containment measures.
To quote him, "Equity in health is a fundamental principle of public health. In this regard, let me say that it is a matter of concern that COVID-19 has been reported from Jammu and Kashmir and in view of the health emergency, it is imperative that all "lockdown" there must be lifted immediately. Opening up communication and movement would facilitate dissemination of information, allow distribution of medical supplies and allow containment to proceed unimpeded.”
Prime Minister Modi, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, Nepalese Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli, Bhutanese premier Lotay Tshering, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Zafar Mirza participated in the video conference.
Brilliant Indian initiative
The video conference was a brilliant Indian initiative at a time when countries around the world should forget their differences and unite in a joint fight against the biggest health threat faced by the world in the last hundred years. India had decided to have no dealings with Pakistan till it abandoned the path of cross border terrorism. It was because India had boycotted the Islamabad SAARC summit that SAARC itself became dormant and India had initiated moves to develop an alternate arrangement for regional cooperation.
PM Modi’s initiative, therefore, was a major departure from the policy on account of the health emergency. This was the reason why the other heads of state and government enthusiastically welcomed the initiative. Pakistan's response to the proposal came late, with the country's Foreign Office Spokesperson Aisha Farooqui saying that the Special Assistant to Pakistani Prime Minister on Health Mirza will be available to participate in the video conference.
The point that Pakistan missed was that the video conference was not an empty gesture. After many years of existence, SAARC had a golden opportunity to do something concrete, offered by India. PM Modi did not ask for anything in return for the bouquet of offers he made unilaterally. He offered the following, reminding us of the Gujral Doctrine, which had stipulated that India should make non-reciprocal concessions to its neighbours.
1. I propose we create a COVID-19 Emergency Fund. This could be based on voluntary contributions from all of us. India can start with an initial offer of $ 10 million for this fund. Any of us can use the fund to meet the cost of immediate actions. Our Foreign Secretaries, through our embassies, can coordinate quickly to finalise the concept of this Fund and its operations.
2. We are assembling a Rapid Response Team of doctors and specialists in India, along with testing kits and other equipment. They will be on stand-by, to be placed at your disposal, if required.
3. We can also quickly arrange online training capsules for your emergency response teams. This will be based on the model we have used in our own country, to raise the capacity of all our emergency staff.
4. We had set up an Integrated Disease Surveillance Portal to better trace possible virus carriers and the people they contacted. We could share this Disease Surveillance software with SAARC partners, and training on using this.
5. Let us also use existing facilities, like the SAARC Disaster Management Centre, to pool in the best practices among all of us.
Pakistan wasted a splendid opportunity to revive SAARC unconditionally and also gain the advantages of regional cooperation largely funded and supported by India. For Pakistan, it was more important to spurn the Indian initiative. Pakistan would rather bank on China for funding and support. It may be recalled that Pakistan made an exceptionally blind gesture to China by not withdrawing its nationals from the epicentre of the disease, Wuhan. The action may well have had its consequences.
Soon after the SAARC video conference, a team of Pakistani officials flew to China to seek an assistance programme to fight COVID-19. Pakistan appears to have formed a “G-2” with China to resolve national and international problems.
The Video Conference experience was proof, if proof were needed, that Pakistan is interested in the SAARC only as a platform to raise bilateral issues. Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had rightly anticipated this possibility when Bangladesh first proposed a regional organisation. She had put forward a number of conditions, including the prohibition of raising bilateral issues in SAARC, which was violated every time a meeting was held. Another wise condition that she had imposed was that no meeting of SAARC should be held without the participation of all member states. This provision had helped us to isolate Pakistan at the Islamabad summit following the Uri attack. The Islamabad session was also poised to consider China’s application for full membership of SAARC, which might have embarrassed us as all members, except India were willing to support China’s membership.
India has won this round even if nothing concrete happens by way of cooperation of SAARC as a whole to combat coronavirus. India has assumed the leadership of South Asia in this regard and other South Asian countries are likely to contribute to the Fund and use the SAARC machinery and funds to take some joint measures. Pakistan is likely to stay out of these efforts, once again demonstrating that it has no faith in SAARC.
India had already looked at alternate arrangements for regional cooperation without Pakistan by promoting groupings like BIMSTEC and the Indian Ocean Rim Organisation. Although these do not have a political glue yet, the time has come for us to strengthen them. The Prime Minister has also suggested a G-20 meeting to consider global efforts to fight COVID-19 and this is likely to be accepted. India should move on, while Pakistan nurses its wounds over Kashmir. India should provide the leadership to fight the pandemic not only in South Asia but also in the rest of the world.