Home Commentaries & Articles Revival of the SAARC: A Geopolitical Masterstroke?

Revival of the SAARC: A Geopolitical Masterstroke?


The coronavirus pandemic is defining the global health crisis of recent times. The virus has spread to nearly every nook and corner of the world. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) it has globally infected around 4,425,485 and has claimed 302,059 lives as of 16th May 2020. While the world battles against this virus, the slogan around the globe has been to tackle this situation together. This has pushed the countries worldwide to act together, in close tandem on the one hand while on the other hand, ‘physical distancing’ has become a central aspect of plans to limit the spread of the virus worldwide. Recently, in a press brief by the WHO, Emergencies Director, Dr Mike Ryan stated that the world might have to start living with this virus, hinting that this may be the ‘new normal’. Apprehensive of such a global situation, what is of utmost importance is the need for health security, growing regional connectivity to ensure economic security as well as a framework to fight against the deadly virus.

Importance of regionalism in South  Asia dates back to the emergence of  SAARC (South  Asian  Association for  Regional  Cooperation), which was seen as a platform to provide a new ‘leadership’ to the world. The human and material resources coupled with other common features like geographical proximity, historical backgrounds, and commonality of social and political norms of development led towards the formation of the South Asian grouping. It is important to note that the main idea behind the formation of SAARC was the promotion of political, economic and social interaction – a common vision for using the region’s potential and interdependence to counter common threats.  In the past 35 years, the overall assessment of SAARC performance shows not just a negative trend but emphasizes the need to collaborate further by resolving all outstanding disputes among the member countries and to create understanding on a stable basis.

Established in 1985, the South   Asian   Association for   Regional   Cooperation (SAARC)  is an organization of South Asian nations. Headquartered in Kathmandu, Nepal, the very idea for establishing a framework for regional integration and cooperation in South Asia was made by Zia-Ur  Rahman, the late president of  Bangladesh, in 1980.  Before this, the idea of South  Asian integration was discussed in several conferences. The seven founding members, Pakistan,  Bangladesh,  Bhutan,  India,  Maldives,  Nepal,  and  Sri  Lanka formally adopted its charter providing for the promotion of social, economic and cultural development within the South Asian region and also for friendship and cooperation with other developing countries, thus trying to cement the relationship to ensure regional diplomacy, while Afghanistan joined the organization in 2007.

India’s Leadership

Like other rising powers, India has always shown willingness to take on greater international responsibilities, whether during the times of creating platforms such as SAARC or BIMSTEC, or by its participation in the United Nations. There are instances where India has played an active contributing role in global governance in issue areas such as climate change, terrorism and multilateral trade negotiations. The paradox of India’s rise is that while there is a clear positive trend in its role in global governance, regional governance remains locked in geopolitics. South Asia is a region where despite the existence of a pan-South Asian organisation SAARC for over three decades, it is yet to implement a single all SAARC project. The South Asia Satellite launched in May 2017 is case in point. The failure of the SAARC framework meant that India’s ability to contribute to regional governance has been severely limited, if not completely closed. As India’s strategic interests widen in South Asia and beyond, it finds itself in direct geopolitical competition with a rising China whose interests and influence has been rapidly growing in these regions.

Revival of the SAARC: Leadership During the COVID-19

This year on March 15, India led from the front in hosting the first SAARC meeting, four years later. Prime Minister Narendra Modi proposed to hold a virtual meet through a video to devise a regional strategy in fighting the rapidly spreading coronavirus. This also gave a message worldwide, of countries from a particular region coming together in times of crisis maintaining distance, but standing with each other in solidarity. India proposed that the leadership of SAARC nations should chalk out a strong strategy to fight the deadly coronavirus. The virtual meeting included leaders of seven countries including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the special health adviser to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan. The countries discussed the increasing cases of coronavirus in the subcontinent, measures taken to halt the spread of the deadly virus, and possible treatment methods. India laid out details of its ongoing efforts and action plan to limit the outbreak of the coronavirus. 

The meet was important from quite a few perspectives.  Firstly, it is a crisis which led to the opportunity by bringing together countries of the region for the first high-level SAARC meet since 2014 by providing directional leadership with health diplomacy as its core objective – an agenda which no one could refuse. Four years after India had declined to meet in Islamabad in 2016, citing cross-border terrorism (Uri Attack) as the basis, this all the member meeting had its diplomatic importance. Then, other countries of SAARC like Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan had also pulled out, leaving SAARC directionless.

Secondly, India’s decision to hold the conference despite its reservations against talking to Pakistan reflects a befitting attitude of a leader that has risen above bilateral animosity to engage all nations to think of the larger regional good during a health crisis. It showed a mature understanding that global challenges require a coordinated response. Also, when the forum of SAARC was used by Pakistan to raise several issues not concerning the pandemic, India still took the lead and focused on taking a step further to ensure regional cooperation. Major countries of the world including the US and Russia have lauded India’s efforts towards preparing South Asia and taking the lead for a collective response.

Although the World Health Organisation (WHO) had floated the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund with the help of corporate bodies, foundations, and the UN Foundation, India tried to build a response fund in the subcontinent on the same lines. A similar video conference between G7 leaders was held which was followed by this meeting, thus bringing the SAARC leaders on a common platform by India which has been considered a geopolitical masterstroke.

India proposed a COVID-19 emergency fund for SAARC countries to fight the pandemic, extending $10 million as India’s contribution to the fund. Other countries have also extended contribution to the emergency fund –  Sri Lanka ($5 million), Bangladesh ($1.5 million), Nepal ($1 million), Afghanistan ($1 million), Maldives ($200,000), and Bhutan ($100,000) taking the total amount in the COVID-19 Emergency Fund to $18.3 million. Pakistan’s contribution has been proposed to the SAARC Secretariat as $3 million. Since the leaders’ video conference, the senior health professionals of SAARC countries also met on another video conference on March 26 to exchange experiences of combating the spread of COVID-19 so far and share best practices. SAARC Disaster Management Centre (SDMC-IU), Gandhinagar has also set up a website (http://www.covid19-sdmc.org/) on COVID-19 for shared use of SAARC countries. A ‘special cell’ in the Ministry of External Affairs of India is coordinating and monitoring coordination of regional efforts with SAARC countries. 

Among other initiatives, India had dispatched a 14-member medical team from its defence forces, including doctors and paramedics, to the Maldives to assist in fighting the pandemic, before the SAARC Meeting. This initiative is important as perhaps this is the first-ever Indian medical team to go to another country. India has also proposed to send a Rapid Response Team (RRT) of medical professionals to Nepal to assist the latter in fighting the COVID-19 outbreak.  Besides, in an exceptional display of leadership, India evacuated more than 50 citizens from other countries including from Maldives, Myanmar, Bangladesh, China, US, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, Nepal, South Africa and Peru amid its evacuations in the light of the COVID-19 outbreak from early February.

As history shows us, the Plague, a bacteria-led pandemic (1896 to 1939), caused 12 million deaths; Spanish Flu, caused by a virus, claimed 12 million lives in India over a period of just three months in 1918. In both cases, the British government tried to intervene, advocate social isolation and sensitise the population. In 2020, as the Novel Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19), a global viral pandemic, infects Indians too, the response is no different. During the earlier flu in 1918, the British hardly did anything. There was no known cure, no vaccine and no one knew certainly how the flu could be stopped from spreading. In India, during that period voluntary organisations like the Ramakrishna Mission and the Social Service League in Mumbai took over much of the work of supplying food and medicine. COVID-19 has exactly brought an unprecedented effect on millions of people and the need for leadership is the most important during this time. Platforms and forums like SAARC, BIMSTEC are important for countries to come together. It is also important, for India, in the near changing multipolar world, to hold on its space and take the lead in the subcontinent by guiding other countries to fight against this deadly virus.



Several points in history, India has tried to take the lead through SAARC. But due to lack of consistency at times, it has somewhere kept India away from taking the lead in the region. There is a considerable apprehension and resentment within countries to give China the space to become the superpower. At the same time countries such as the US have failed to show the world direction and become the leader. Growing multipolar global order, Vietnam is trying to set a new standard amongst the ASEAN Countries. It is also important that India retains the position of an aspiring global power by showing its leading role in the South Asian region. The resurrection of SAARC, after four years, can be seen as a masterstroke, hoping that India wouldn’t lose sight of its aim this time.


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