By proposing an Emergency Fund to combat the coronavirus pandemic as well as keep a rapid response team of medics on standby for the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (Saarc) countries, India has not just shown its seriousness on tackling the infection but also taken the leadership role in the regional grouping.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initiative in bringing the top eight leaders of the regional group together on video-conference to discuss a common strategy to battle coronavirus was a statesmanlike move. Not only did all the neighbors respond positively, their heads of governments attended the video-conference, barring Pakistan which deputed an official to attend the meet.
Modi’s offer to engage with his neighbors comes at a time when Saarc as a regional grouping almost lies forgotten—partly owing to differences between the two most powerful countries, India and Pakistan. Moreover, over the last few years India was seen promoting and engaging with Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec) nations rather than with Saarc. Bimstec is an international organization comprising seven countries—India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand—that lie in the Bay of Bengal region.
India did not fall into the trap laid by Pakistan when it refused to respond to the comment made by the Pakistan official, Dr Zafar Mirza, who said, “…it is a matter of concern that COVID-19 has been reported from Jammu & Kashmir. In view of the health emergency, it is imperative that all lockdown must be lifted.”
Mirza also praised China in the video conference by saying that Saarc countries should learn best practices from China in dealing with COVID-19. The Indian response to Pakistan’s Kashmir question was to sidestep the provocation and carry on with the COVID-19 agenda, which has assumed global importance.
It must have been a tightrope walk for both India and Pakistan, when Modi invited all neighboring countries, including Pakistan, for the COVID-19 strategy, and also for Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan to agree to India’s invitation. However, the two sides did come together to discuss the deadly coronavirus over video conference.
Relations between the two have been frozen due to repeated attacks on Indian troops by Pakistan-based terror groups. Of late, India has been retaliating by launching land-based and aerial surgical strikes in Pakistani territory to destroy terror infrastructure. Even though the two sides have initiated talks, these have been confined to the Kartarpur corridor—to enable Indian Sikhs to visit one of their holiest shrines that lies in Pakistan—but little else.
It was, therefore, a magnanimous gesture on part of India to invite Pakistan for the video-conference. A gesture that was appreciated by all neighbors. Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said that Saarc leaders should formulate a mechanism to support the economies of the region threatened by coronavirus. Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina too hailed Modi’s suggestions to deal with the pandemic and suggested more similar video conferences, including one of Saarc health ministers.
Nepal PM K.P. Sharma Oli, who joined the conference after having undergone a recent surgery, said: “Our collective efforts will help us devise a sound and robust strategy for Saarc region to fight coronavirus.” Bhutanese PM Lotay Tshering said that it was important for all Saarc countries to be on same page to combat coronavirus.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani welcomed the initiatives suggested by Modi, while Maldivian President Ibrahim Solih too thanked Modi for taking the initiative to combat COVID-19 and setting up an emergency fund.
India’s offer to collectively restrain the virus follows its gesture of airlifting seven Maldivian nationals along with hundreds of its own citizens from Wuhan early in February. In rescue missions later, India brought back many more Indians with dozens of foreign nationals from China as well as Japan. With the regional initiative over coronavirus, Modi has put India firmly back in the driver’s seat in the south Asian region as well as opened up a window to improving relations in the neighborhood..