Modi smartly plays ‘Corona-diplomacy’: Will it revive SAARC?
Simple answer, to the question posed in the title - all in the South Asian region are now eagerly waiting how and when it is realised. Some three weeks ago a bloody communal violence in New Delhi noticeably pushed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the back foot, whipping up controversy over his leadership. Now a global health crisis seems to have appeared as a blessing in disguise to restore his tarnished image.
In the wake of the global pandemic coronavirus, last Sunday the Indian PM proposed to create a COVID-19 Emergency Fund for SAARC countries - stating that the pandemic can be addressed best only by joint efforts, and not by growing apart. The Indian PM is correct in his reading as all European major powers have been helping one another - irrespective of their national security and interests. Additionally, a live video conference, mooted by the Indian Prime Minister, was held in the presence of all SAARC leaders on the same day. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina joined the videoconference from Dhaka with other SAARC leaders and stole much of the limelight of the 'digital summit' of South Asian leaders by her call to chalk out a strong common strategy to fight COVID-19 in the region. It is an encouraging event for all SAARC countries to come under a single platform to fight the spreading of the deadly virus in South Asia.
Among the other members present at the videoconference were Presidents of Sri Lanka, Maldives and Afghanistan, Prime Minister of Bhutan and state health minister of Pakistan. However, people in the region clearly marked the conspicuous absence of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan. For the Pakistan PM it was a missed opportunity to come out as a responsible and pro - active regional leader at a time when the entire world was struggling to combat the deadly menace of a lethal virus.
Markedly, it was Narendra Modi's smart and calculative strategic move that has surprised all. He has noticeably made the best out of a health crisis to make a comeback while giving a different colour to his political and diplomatic image in the wake of some controversial moves that raised domestic outcry in his own country.
Observing from multiple angles, the Indian PM's call to unite against Coronavirus is likely to serve three key purposes. First, the 'Corona diplomacy' similar to the once famous US-China 'Ping-Pong diplomacy' during the Cold War era has brought the need of SAARC cooperation to limelight. Second, Modi's tarnished image has been repaired to a certain degree, and third Modi's 'Corona-call' is likely to divert regional and the global attention which has been haunting Modi due to the recent Delhi violence and some domestic issues like CAA, NRC and Kashmir.
Following the videoconference, both USA and Russia hailed the Indian PM. In short, Modi has played with the virus like an expert and matured player. We, however, also fail to comprehend how the Pakistan PM's absence from the video conference will help Pakistan's bilateral and SAARC ties with its other neighbouring countries apart from India.
The SAARC has been evidently motionless as a regional cooperation association for quite some time. For more than three years now, the regional grouping has been unable to get its members together for its 19th summit, which was to be held in Pakistan. In fact, the distrust, suspicion, disputes and leadership ego among member states kept SAARC crippled from the start and doomed to be ineffective in promoting and ensuring meaningful and sustainable regional cooperation.
Obviously there may be numerous disputes and unsettled issues between neighbouring countries, but it is unreasonable and also unnecessary to refrain from tying a common regional bond in order to combat a global health crisis or to fulfil common aspirations to fight poverty, terrorism and drugs in the region. We also believe that there must be separate platforms to discuss and resolve separate bilateral issues.
However, the Pakistan PM's participation would have undeniably added an extra value to the video conference since Pakistan is an important member of the SAARC and Imran Khan would have proved his leadership sagacity. So far, compared to the global coronavirus crisis our region remains relatively relaxed. But we need to remain ever vigilant. Most importantly we have to work together uniting under a single regional umbrella. On that note - Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears to be emerging as the regional leader and torchbearer to wage an all-out united and coordinated war against Coronavirus by using the SAARC platform strategically.
A common research platform has also been proposed under the SAARC framework, which will focus not only on Coronavirus, but also on challenges posed, by this kind of emergency in the future. The Indian PM's 'corona diplomacy' is praiseworthy if it can revive now dormant SAARC spirit and guide the fragmented SAARC into positive direction in the days ahead.
It is expected Mr. Narendra Modi will move further forward to defuse tension between India and Pakistan, two major members of SAARC, that on some occasions forced the regional body to face uncertain future. He should also be liberal enough and careful to avoid taking divisive and controversial domestic issues that may have sensitive fallout in India's relations with its neighbours and SAARC members.
It is also a propitious time for Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina as the longest serving SAARC leader to play a vital role to bring the regional leaders together to revive the SAARC, mooted by Bangladesh. She has manifested her leadership to promote regional peace and cooperation by keeping a unique balance of Bangladesh's relations with the SAARC countries.