The Dictum and the Dilemma


One is a puritanical Islamic Monarchy, the other world’s oldest Democracy.One beheads the most number of civilians on earth, and the other endows the post of the head of the UN Human Rights Commision to it (because ‘natural allies’). One doesn’t even allow it’s women the rights to drive a car and the other is on the verge of electing a female president.

Seems contrasting? Given the ‘gulf’ of cultural and societal gap, what is it that makes them “natural allies” in this day and age? Well yes, it’s Saudi Arabia and the United States we are referring to, and their bilateral ties which epitomise contrast and a sense of sporadic convolution as well. The links seem obvious on the surface – Oil in exchange for security and diplomatic wherewithal, but today, these comprise just one facet of a rather nuanced relationship which defies most generalizations of commonalities and diplomacy.

US President Barack Obama with King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud. Source:
US President Barack Obama with King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud.

Background and a Historical perspective.

As a political entity, Saudi Arabia is of relatively recent origins. Its origins lay with the puritanical 18th century Wahhabi movement, which gained the allegiance of the powerful Saud family of the Nejd, in central Arabia. Supported by the Bedouin majority, the Sauds brought most of the peninsula under their control, except for Yemen and the Hadhramaut in the extreme south. Post the defeat in 1891 by the hands of the Rashid dynasty, it was Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, known as Ibn Saud, a descendant of the first Wahhabi rulers, who laid the basis of the present Saudi Arabian state.

Beginning the Wahhabi reconquest at the turn of the century, Ibn Saud took Riyadh in 1902 and was master of the Nejd by 1906. On the eve of World War I he conquered the Al-Hasa region from the Ottoman Turks and soon extended his control over other areas. Hejaz fell to Saud in 1924–25 and in 1932 was combined with the Nejd to form the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis had first contact with Americans via Christian missionary doctors based in Bahrain. In 1925, Abdulaziz, the founder of the country, commissioned an American, Karl Twitchell, to look around for oil in the Eastern Province, because it seemed close to other oil-bearing regions in Iraq. However, bilateral relations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States began in 1933 when full diplomatic relations were established, post the withdrawal of the British from the larger middle eastern region.

As a result of exploration expeditions by the US, Oil was discovered in 1936 by the U.S.owned Arabian Standard Oil Company and commercial production began in 1938, as the Standard Oil of California struck a successful well and the story of the Saudi oil got started. It was delayed by WWII when the Saudis actually imported oil from the US. Post the war though, we have a case study of the magnanimity of wealth and prosperity that exploitation of natural resources can endow you with. Consistently.

Causes for collaboration. And Then 9/11.

Right since it’s inception, Saudi Arabia involved itself into numerous regional conflicts for atavistically diverse reasonings –  be it regarding Palestine with Israel, or in opposition to the Nasser regime in Egypt, the Arab Oil embargo of 1973, and, of course, it’s multi-faceted rivalry with Iran, which we shall get back to in a while. The US and Saudi Arabia though managed to find common grounds to collaborate during the cold war, when KSA proved to be a useful ally to have on one’s side, for The US and Saudi Arabia shared the view that “Atheist Communism” was a problem. The US focused on the “communism” part, while theocratic Saudis were most taken by the “Atheist” bit of it.

In 1972, the Saudi-Arabian government along with its OPAEC partners demanded tighter rein on the oil industry as well as participation in the oil concessions of foreign companies. Aramco (a conglomerate of several American oil companies) and the government reached an agreement in June 1974, whereby the Saudis would take a 60% majority ownership of the company’s concessions and assets. King Faisal played an active role in organizing the Arab oil embargo of 1973, directed against the United States and other nations that supported Israel. As U.S. oil prices soared, Saudi revenues increased. Right throughout the end of the 20th century, as a result of Saudi Arabia’s increased wealth, its quest for stability, and its improved relations with Western nations, the country began an extensive military build-up in the 1970s. The Americans in particular had the technology and the wherewithal in terms of experience to help develop Saudi Arabia, which they were pleased to do with massive contracts and fat salaries. Soon, just about all Saudi infrastructures had Americans designing and building it.

KSA and the US always do find a common cause in each conflict or global development they are involved in, and have had in the past identified benefits which were mutual and hence worth collaborating for. Be it in support of stable oil prices, cohesion in the norms and trade practices of the global oil cartel especially of that based in the Persian Gulf or economic stability in the economies of Western countries where Saudis have invested. Also, in particular, the two counties had allied against the Soviets in Afghanistan during the cold war and in the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait in 1991 wherein thousands of Saudi troops participated in the Persian Gulf War against Iraq and the country took in Kuwait’s royal family and more than 400,000 Kuwaiti refugees

The event which pulsated the equilibrium of US-KSA ties rather dramatically were the terror attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York by Islamic fundamentalists. Outof the 19 hijackers of the planes which bombed the buildings, 17 were Saudi nationals. Now, the Saudis have always worked towards maximizing their global and regional political influence through its financial and Islamic ‘soft power’. What it means is that they have a history of funding the spread of “Wahabbism”- a puritanical version of Sunni Islam- to strengthen their foothold and dominance in the Muslim world.

This led to immense tension between the two countries. Saudi Arabia was in denial that Saudis actually played any role or that Saudi Arabia held any culpability. The US disagreed, not only on the facts of the attack, but also pointing out that Saudi education encouraged religious extremism, that Saudi monetary controls were essentially useless, and that the Saudis had no idea where the money they were contributing to “Islamic charities” was actually ending up, i.e., in the hands of terrorist organizations. The 9/11attacks have put a strain on this relationship and complicated the Saudi calculations. It caused both Riyadh and Washington to re-evaluate their ‘special relationship’. The after-effects of it are stil being felt in both the establishments, with the US senate recently passing a legislation that would allow families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia’s government for damages, setting up a potential showdown with both Riyadh and the White House, which has threatened a veto. The Saudis, who deny responsibility for the 2001 attacks strongly object to the bill and issued a rejoinder saying they might sell up to $750 billion in US securities and other American assets in retaliation if it became law.

US Secretary of State John Kerry with King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud Source: World Politics Review
US Secretary of State John Kerry with King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud

Global Power dynamics, Iran and Contemporary Prophecies.

As a result of the unpopularity of the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan coupled with the continued Israeli occupation of Palestine, anti-American sentiment in the Middle-East has been on a rise. The strain on the relationship with the U.S. was further exacerbated during the protests across the Arab world in the spring of 2011. The differences surfaced strongly in 2011 due to the Saudi king’s anger at Washington’s response to uprisings across the Arab World, especially its abandonment of Hosni Mubarak, the deposed Egyptian president and a long-time Saudi and U.S. ally, for the Saudis knew very well that political pluralism will doom the monarchy.

The current Saudi calculations are driven by a deep fear and suspicion of expanding Iranian influence. Saudi leadership has begun to look at all regional security issues through the prism of their fears about growing Iranian influence. They see Iran’s activities as disconcerting and provocative, not only in Iraq, but also in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Bahrain, Yemen, parts of Africa, and Southeast Asia. Concerned about a possible rise in Iran’s regional influence and a decline in the status of the so-called moderate Arab camp, the Saudis are pursuing overt diplomacy aimed at leveraging the changes in the Arab world in their favour and ensuring a status-quoist hegemony.

The recent nuclear deal with Iran followed by lifting of most economic sanctions imposed upon it, and the inability to simply coerce it is adjudged like submission on U.S.’s part to a competitive regional power. The fact that Shia-majority Iran has etched together a nice little power block only adds to the discomfort on Saudi’s part, with them having the US to blame in all scenarios.It Reflects a more general disconnect between Washington and Riyadh on the regional geopolitical order. As a feeble rejoinder, Saudi Arabia’s hostility toward the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, and its coordinated efforts to block change in the Gulf and in allied monarchies across the region, works directly against the stated American goal of promoting reform.

Over the last decade, Saudi Arabia has diversified its foreign policies by shifting its focus from the West to the East as a response to changing international and regional situations. This is partly a means to neutralize the western political pressure; and partly because Asian economies, especially China and India, have developed rapidly, consequently needing more crude oil. Also as Saudi monarchs take popular sentiments into account, it will become more difficult for the governments to disregard the reactions of domestic audiences on important economic and security issues in order to satisfy the policy demands of the United States. Maintaining a region-specific partnership with the US, which is fundamental to its security and maximizing the economic and geopolitical benefits from being the most important oil producer in the world are KSA’s immediate priorities. However, the unwritten security architecture “oil-for-security” between Riyadh and Washington has become more complex and sometimes contradictory due to many domestic, regional, and international factors, fostering a tectonic shift in the dynamics of power and authority. Expect the November 8th verdict of the US Presidential elections to add to it all, maybe unilaterally so.

Let’s talk about Cauvery


With growing protest over the Cauvery water, the decades-long dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu takes a drastic turn following the Supreme Court ruling of September 6. Amid the concerns regarding low water level at reservoirs, Karnataka was asked to release 15,000 cusecs of water per day to Tamil Nadu for 10 days. This worsened the scenario with vehicles being burned, Kannadigas and Tamils being attacked in the respective states. Though a number of rulings were followed, the state of unrest concerning the matter hasn’t changed.

Source: The Quint
Source: The Quint

Here’s what has happened over the years.

Some facts about Cauvery

The river, 802 km long, originated in Talakaveri in Kodagu district flows through Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and reaches the Bay of Bengal through Poompuhar in Tamil Nadu. The Cauvery river basin covers an area of 81,155 square kilometres with 43,856 sq. Km in Tamil Nadu, 34,273 in Karnataka, 2,866 sq. km in Kerala and 160 sq. km in Puducherry.

Source: NDTV
Source: NDTV

It happened way back…

The Cauvery issue took its genesis in the two agreements made in 1892 and 1924 by Madras Presidency and Mysore during the British rule. The matter was taken into the court after independence as both states were dissatisfied with the agreement which was valid for 50 years. Following years, petitions were filed and number of judgements was made much to the discontent of states.

During 1970s, Cauvery Fact finding Committee found that over the years, Tamil Nadu’s irrigated land was grown from 14,40,000 acres to 25,80,000 acres whereas Karnataka’s irrigated land area 6,80,000 acres remained same. This raised an upper claim for Tamil Nadu. In the study conducted by central government in 1972, Tamil Nadu has utilised 489 one thousand million cubic feet (tmcft) of Cauvery water while Karnataka has used only 177 tmc ft.

In 1990, Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT) was constituted by centre to conduct a detailed study on the issue and the Tribunal made the final award in 2007. According to that, Tamil Nadu would be given 419 tmcft, Karnataka with 270 tmcft, Kerala with 30 tmcft and Puducherry with 7 tmcft of Cauvery water. Both governments challenged the decision in Supreme Court. But no adequate recommendations were made that would be acceptable by the governments.

Since then disputes happen whenever Karnataka fails to provide required quantity of water to Tamil Nadu. Many a times, severe drought coupled with failure of monsoon adversely affected Karnataka causing them to reduce water supply. In the year 1991, 2001 and 2012 owing to lesser rainfall, there was water shortage in Karnataka particularly in Mandya.

Present Scenario

This year both the states received less rainfall during the monsoon. Tamil Nadu government filed a petition in the Supreme Court as there was a deficit of 50.0052 tmcft of water received from Karnataka. The verdict on September created uproar with Cauvery HorataSamiti activists and farmers blocking roads in Mandya protesting SC ruling. The judgement was further modified to a reduced amount of 12,000 cusecs per day till September 20th.

The protest continued and the Cauvery supervisory committee on 19th Sept. asked Karnataka to release 3,000 cusecs of water per day from 21 to 30 Sept. But the apex court on considering Tamil Nadu’s plea to save its Samba paddy fields doubled the quantity of water, making it 6,000 cusecs of water per day to be issued from 21st to 27th of Sept.

But the Karnataka legislature in the special session passed a resolution on 23rd Sept. to release water only for meeting the basic concerns of Bengaluru and Cauvery basin.

Key problem

The less rainfall owing to bad monsoon has reduced the water storage of four reservoirs as low as 27.6 tmc ft. The primary reservoir in the Cauvery basin, Krishna Raja Sagaraand the other reservoirs like Hemavathy, Harangi and Kabini were half empty adversely affecting agricultural practices of both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

The absence of Cauvery Management Board and a regulatory authorityintensified the dispute happening between the neighbouring states.

What’s next?

A sustainable agricultural solution should be made for the Cauvery basin. There should be more non-political initiatives like ‘Cauvery Family’ to resolve the issues related to it. A committee should be formed with members from both the states to diplomatically handle the turmoil.

With inputs from The Hindu, The Financial Express

Practice Diplomacy, Not Outrage


The recent Uri attack has sparked an outrage in India, and Pakistan. On the Indian side, the public hasdecided on something that really gives away the kind of opinions any “natural” (perhaps “common” is a better word) citizen would have: declare war, initiate cross border attacks, stop water flow to Pakistan.

In other words, we are practicing outrage, not diplomacy, which is defined as an art of dealing with an entity in a tactful and sensitive way. In other words, diplomatic offense is something subtle, yet profound. Not opaque, but not entirely visible.

There is so much at stake than to just “teach Pakistan a lesson” –wait, what? Yes, “teach Pakistan a lesson”-the phrase that immediately every patriot starts using every time there is a terrorist attack along the border.

Let’s analyse what we have here. The most-absurd suggestion that we usually hear is: declare war against Pakistan. Well, yes, too easy a statement to make when you’re typing that statement away from behind a screen, or when you’re uttering those words at a school or workplace a 1000 kms away from a border. Forget the nuclear weapons, even a conventional war between the two countries will totally derail our economy, currently seen as the only bright-spot in a period of time where countries have been experiencing negative GDP growth.

The second, and this one is rather peculiar: block water to Pakistan. This one is in references to the Indus water system, the source of which originates in India, much to the delight of the common man. India has already signed a treaty –the Indus Water Treaty, which was brokered by the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (now the World Bank) that allocated exclusive access of the western rivers (Indus, Jhelum and Chenab) to Pakistan and access to the eastern rivers (Ravi, Beas and Sutlej) to India. As a lower riparian state, Pakistan has rights to this water. Breaking this treaty means that India will have to give up its fervour in the international arena, something that Pakistan doesn’t have.

India can’t afford to do make such open, vividly clear attacks on Pakistan. Imagine the world knowing that India initiated a water war with Pakistan, instantly deconstructing all the global image that India has gained since the 1950s. I cringe on hearing that such global image doesn’t do India any good. If India is constantly in the fray for a permanent seat in the UNSC, if India is given concessions with respect to the NSG, if India is given entry into the MTCR, it is definitely because of the global image that India has built over the years. What’s the possibility of Pakistan ever being considered for a permanent seat at the UNSC? I’d say none. Pakistan’s activities of state sponsorship of terrorism have indeed cost Pakistan in many ways, for it’s the third most terrorism-affected nation in the world:

Total deaths in 2012 from terror attacks in the nation. Source: Internet
Total deaths in 2012 from terror attacks in the nation.
Source: Internet

At this point, we have to take into consideration something else: the global image of Pakistan, which is right now as tarnished as it can get. US lawmakers recently moved a bill to designate Pakistan as a terrorist sponsorstate. The EU recently considered imposing sanctions on Pakistan for “atrocities in Balochistan”

I do not suggest active warfare. Nor do I suggest breaking an international treaty that would lay ruin to all that we’ve built over these years. But at the same time, we cannot risk ourselves getting seen as a weak nation than cannot build an offensivestrategy. I suggest diplomacy. You know? Diplomacy, by initiating a tougher stance on Jammu and Kashmir, by continuing to portray Pakistan as a terrorist sponsor state, by exposing Balochistan. Diplomacy, not mindless outrage.

More importantly, security needs to be tightened. All measures to be taken to ensure the safety of our soldiers stationed at the borders. Everything needed by the army, including sophisticated weapons and other equipment that are necessary for their safety need to be provided. In this light, I’d like to leave a graph that might induce solace:

Terrorism in India:: Total civilian and security force personnel deaths
Terrorism in India:: Total civilian and security force personnel deaths.
Source: Internet

The Muted Spectators?


“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties” – John Milton

The liberty for free speech has become a nominal term in the recent Indian scenario. It has become a much debated term following incidents of attack on the writers, intellectuals and popular figures, which shows the weakening of the very basis of democratic society. Though freedom of speech is enshrined in the Indian constitution, the government seems to adopt an anti- liberal attitude which largely has blown the issue out of proportion.

Kanhaiya Kumar at JNU. Source: Internet

The inability of the government to resolve the affair coupled with its blind nod to the “nationalistic” policy designed by Sangh Parivar have aggravated the crisis thus pushing the state of freedom of speech into an abyss. The current controversy concerning Jawaharlal Nehru University is yet another dereliction of government as it failed to properly address the matter in hand but instead chose to remain the stringent supporter of its youth wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP).

The term freedom of speech clearly states the power or right to express one’s opinion without censorship, restraint or legal penalty. The article 19 (1) (a) of Indian constitution ensures freedom of speech and expression as fundamental human right. But this freedom, as guaranteed in the constitution is not fully exercised as the sedition charge which dates back to colonial period acquires prime importance in the Indian Penal Code. But the law ensures that “words and speeches can be criminalized and punished only in situations where it is being used to incite mobs or crowds to violent action, mere words and phrases themselves, no matter how distasteful, don’t amount to a criminal offence unless this condition is met”. The crisis at JNU came into spotlight as this basic freedom of speech was violated at the very hands of the custodians of law.

The row on India’s premier institute began when Democratic Students Union (DSU) in JNU campus organized a cultural meeting of protest against what they called “the judicial killing of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat” and to lend hands for “ the struggle of Kasmiri people for their democratic right to self-determination” on 9th February 2016. The ABVP strongly protested against the event following which the permission given for meeting was retracted.As this action is the gross contravention of freedom of speech, All India Students Federation (AISF) under the leadership of Kanhaiya Kumar, Students Union President of JNU, affirmed their solidarity for the right of free speech. Meanwhile, manipulated versions of videos regarding Kahaiya’s speech went viral through Times Now and Zee News where Arnab Goswami and Sudhir Chaudhary played their role respectively in making “anti-nationals”. Following this, Kanhaiya Kumar and some of the students were arrested and charged under sedition based on the video clippings appeared in the aforementioned news channels. Recently, Delhi police appears to have no evidence against the accused and Kahaiya Kumar received a bail.

The whole issue regarding sedition charge triggered social media response and many contemned the government for its unnecessary indulgence in the educational institute which is well known for its liberal approach. Pratab Banu Mehta, political scientist observes that “some of the students may have been deeply misguided in the beliefs they hold. But a university is the space to debate them: yes, even the hanging of Afzal Guru”.

The usage of sedition charge against students who peacefully protested is a blatant violation of free speech. The tyrannical act of the government can no way be justified and this intolerance towards freedom of expression is the clear affirmation of the burial of “Right to Speak” under the puritanical mind set. But the massive outcry of the student communities all over India against the incident reinstate the fact that they are no longer muted spectators.

Unifying India’s Economy: GST


In 2000, PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government set up an empowered committee, which was given the task of streamlining the GST (Goods and Services Tax) model to be adopted as well as putting in place the required backend infrastructure that would be needed for its implementation.

On 28 February 2006, P. Chidambaram, the then Finance Minister, in his budget speech announced the target date for implementation of GST to be 1 April 2010 and formed another empowered committee of State Finance Ministers to design the roadmap. The committee submitted its report to the government in April 2008 and released its First Discussion Paper on GST in India in 2009. The UPA government in 2013 failed to win the support of BJP-ruled states forcing the legislation to lapse with the dissolution of the 15th Lok Sabha.

In 2014, the NDA (National Democratic Alliance) government, which stormed to power in May, began pushing the legislation through with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley by introducing the Constitution (122nd Amendment) Bill, 2014. It was introduced in the Lok Sabha on 19 December 2014 and passed by the House on 6 May 2015. In the Rajya Sabha, the bill was referred to a Select Committee on 14 May 2015. The Select Committee of the Rajya Sabha submitted its report on the bill on 22 July 2015. The Parliament had on August 8 passed the bill which was then circulated to state governments seeking its ratification.

A Constitution amendment bill needs to be ratified by the Legislative Assemblies of at least 50% of the states. The bill was sent to the President’s secretariat after as many as 17 states ratified the bill. The states which have passed the legislation include Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Nagaland, Maharashtra, Haryana, Sikkim, Mizoram, Telangana, Goa, Odisha, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, and Meghalaya. On 8th September 2016, President Pranab Mukherjee signed the government’s Goods and Services Tax Bill, which will usher in one tax regime for the entire country.

GST in Simple Term: When your Doctor says – to be healthy and for all your different diseases you have to eat only one medicine but it will be little costly and time-consuming. What will you do? I am sure all of you would choose to take one medicine instead of different medicines for other diseases because it will save your time and it will reduce your expenses. GST is that one medicine which will cure the disease of different taxes in India.

The GST is an indirect tax that brings most of the taxes imposed on goods, services, manufacture, sales and consumption of goods and services under its ambit into a single domain at the national level. It will change the taxation that is levied separately on goods and services and will introduce a consolidated tax based off a uniform rate on both goods and services and it is payable at the final point of consumption.

The benefits of GST after the implementation; India with a population of 1.32 billion will pay one tax instead of paying different taxes like; Service Tax, VAT, CST, SST, Excise Duty, Additional Duty of Custom, Entertainment Tax, Luxury Tax and overall GST will replace 17 indirect tax levies and compliance costs will fall. In the present scenario, Service Tax is 15%, Excise Duty is 12.5% and Vat 14.5% but now after GST applicability, it will be 18%.

The GST has been proposed to be kept between 18% and 20%. Since all products and services will have unified taxation, the products or services that a person could avail at lower tax rates will have 18-20% tax on the bill. GST will subsume most of the indirect taxes. The government has also assured states to compensate for 5 years in a case of revenue loss because of GST.

You must be thinking GST to be the only tax that we have to pay now. Technically there will be three type of Taxes under GST i.e. CGST (Central Goods and Service Tax), SGST (State Goods and Service Tax), and IGST (Integrated Goods and service Tax).

There is a prediction that after GST is implemented the country’s GDP might increase up to 1%–2%. GST will remove Tax Evasion and Multiple Taxations.

Overall, GST will boost the revenue. Less developed states will get aid. Logistics and inventory costs are likely to come down and in the result, manufactured goods will become cheaper. The state restrictions and levies have complicated doing business online so it will help in freeing up e-commerce. There is a long way to go and much work has to be done before the government’s April 1, 2017, deadline can be met.

Collaboration in Indian Ocean


Soon after his election victory in early January last year, Sri Lankan President elect – Maithripala Sirisena released all Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan custody as a goodwill gesture, who were imprisoned in the first place because they were fishing in the waters of  the Palk Bay-the body of water that separates Sri Lanka from the southern tip of India and the sovereignty of which is yet to be established. Many saw this as a gesture on his part before his first foreign visit to India as the head of state, one which was to be closely watched by certain quarters for there was a lot he was to discuss and deliberate upon and the outcomes of which could have potential ramifications for the Indian Ocean region countries and maybe beyond.The visit was responded by a state visit of prime minister Narendra Modi to Sri Lanka a month later, the first ever by an India head of government since the assassination of former PM Rajiv Gandhi by LTTE militants in 1987, marking a new high in bilateral ties.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) shakes hands with Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena at the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo March 13, 2015. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) shakes hands with Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena at the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo March 13, 2015. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Indo-Sri Lanka ties are old and illustrious, dating back to 4th century BC, with the introduction of Buddhism into Sri Lanka by Emperor Ashoka’s son – Mahinda. With Buddhism, ethnic and cultural ties being strong links, both nations were expected to be natural allies in the post-colonial era. It was anticipated that the legacy of colonialism would have tied them up in a bond of empathy fuelling collaboration for mutual prosperity. History had to run a different course, though. Today, from maritime security to trade routes, from ports to regional and internal security and from geopolitics to cultural ties, there’s simply a lot for the two States to work upon for any irritant to hinder collaboration as such, unless domestic economic and political compulsions align with the aspirations of a rising superpower, grasping at every opportunity to strengthen its long-term regional and strategic goals. The ever-rising and seemingly successful presence of China into a region which India has historically considered as its own backyard of influence has long discomforted India and is one of the reasons why the election victory of Sirisena was being hailed as a good omen in the Indian establishment after years long rule of Mahinda Rajapaksa, a demagogue and a long time China votary.

Sri Lanka makes for a perfect case study of China using loans and financial grants actively as tools of coercion, for exerting it’s influence and sealing its presence. The previous Sri Lanka Freedom Party regime indiscriminately allowed Chinese funding for strategic infrastructure projects and while China’s massive loans to Sri Lanka were often portrayed as a response to international economic pressures over concerns of human rights abuses for the nation with a tumultuous history of a civil war, these acted as de-facto handouts for Chinese companies, also ensuring that in near future Colombo is relegated to the whims of the Chinese establishment (ambitious geopolitical initiative like the String of Pearls for example), for Sri Lanka will be saddled with massive debts with higher than usual interest rates. Already the biggest lender, China has loaned to Sri Lanka more than $8 billion for various projects, pockets too deep for India to match and a fact clearly understood by the Indian establishment. Recent developments like that of  China seeking for its loan amounts to be converted into Sri Lankan infrastructural equities only reaffirm that what’s been speculated for long.

Contemporarily, concerns for security, regional stability, and restructuring of bilateral ties far outweigh any other concerns for India as far as Sri Lanka is concerned, and India has been deploying soft power along with emphatic diplomatic outreaches to further its interests and concerns, especially given the regime change in New Delhi, with a government with a clear majority taking charge of affairs and pursuing a foreign policy of its own without having to accommodate inputs of regional and domestic hawks.

With Sri Lanka, the Modi government has been linear and direct about its expectations and undertakings. On one hand, on the Tamil issue, the prime minister’s meeting with Tamil National Alliance leaders during his visit to the island nation in June; promising he would push for devolution and the implementation of the 13th Amendment for them besides visiting Jaffna and Talaimannar (the first ever visit by an Indian PM) as an affirmation of India’s special concern for the Tamil minorities and exhibiting its confidence on a full reconciliation process. On the other, NSA chief Ajit Doval had issued warnings to the Sri Lankan naval chief and former defence secretary over the docking of China’s submarines in Colombo harbor and India has been unambiguously and persistently voicing its concerns over instability in the larger Indian ocean region. The two countries however, have also made progress on the front of stalled negotiations over the CEPA (Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement), alongside increasing maritime defense cooperation and signing agreements and memorandums of understanding (MoUs) on civil nuclear energy, cultural issues, education, and agriculture.

Today, Sri Lanka seems more informed of India’s sensibilities and expectations pertaining to developments, both bilateral and in the region at large. Dialogues at global forums and steps like further devolution of autonomy to Tamil-majority regions in the north and east Sri Lankan regions suggest a much more egalitarian approach towards foreign relations and internal reconciliation, although Sirisena has been reluctant to burn any bridges with Beijing.

Sri Lanka is the largest and the most populous state in the Indian ocean region including the Maldives and Mauritius. Tangible Initiatives of Solid collaboration, be it the construction of a single track line between Colombo, Jaffna and Killinochchi by the Indian Railway Construction International Ltd or the Government of India’s initiative of developing a Buddhist Circuit linking pilgrimage sites, based on shared history, with upgraded infrastructural facilities, speak volumes of the potential to transcend all the conditionalities which characterize the conventional give-and-take in diplomacy. Consequential of India’s growing economic might and diplomatic heft and amid growing realisation in both the establishments of the futility of ambivalence, it’s hoped that ties between the two nations may evolve to be more meaningful and inclusive, and indeed become the defining partnership for the region at large.

Why Integration of SAARC is important?


South Asia is one of the most populous regions in the world boasting a population of 1.749 Billion. Most of the countries in the region are in various stages of economic development and aspire for regional economic integration.

Today, even the well-informed political observers have to admit that hardly anyone would cite SAARC, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, as a role model for regional cooperation when examining different forms of political or economic regional integration.

Such a discussion would first of all focus on the European Union, and ASEAN in South East Asia. SAARC seems to be overshadowed by these organizations and although this regional association is of many years’ standing, having existed for more than thirty years, can it be deemed to be successful? In the eyes of the world, it has enjoyed comparatively few real successes since it was founded in 1985. The Charter signed by the founders of SAARC (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka) promises much and bears many similarities to the founding charters of the other regional associations mentioned above. But even regional observers have criticized SAARC for having good intentions but achieving fewer practical results.

Source: Reuters/Narendra Shrestha
Source: Reuters/Narendra Shrestha

India, the largest country in the region, has been predicted to become an important global economic player in the world by 2030. Pakistan, the second largest South Asian country does not enjoy a robust economy but has the potential to act as a bridge between the countries in the Gulf, China, India and Central Asia for regional economic integration.

The other modest countries like Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka, are today in a much more politically stable condition then they were a few years back, and therefore could both benefit and support a South Asian regional economic integration. Afghanistan could also benefit from such integration in the post-US withdrawal phase of its nation building efforts.

Since decades the issues of India-Pakistan has dominated the unproductive (or productive by SAARC’s standards) sessions. If Pakistan joins other SAARC countries to sign the Motor Vehicles Agreement and fully implements the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit and Trade Agreement (APTTA), the subcontinent could see a revolution on the roads.

The possibility of trucks moving from Kabul to Kolkata and Chittagong, while Pakistan could if it chooses to offer access for Afghan trucks all the way to the Indian check posts at the Wagah-Attari border. Imagine dozens of trucks with food supply and medical aids for Nepal earthquake goes to Nepal from Kabul, Islamabad, Delhi, Thimphu and Dhaka by roads. While this may sound fantastic but the reality is that the only roadblocks to such a vision are political and can easily be adopted on the ground. It could fairly open up opportunities for India to Central Asia, and even as other countries in SAARC follow suit. Unfortunately, Pakistan has decided not to support the agreement during the SAARC summit held in Kathmandu in November 2014, on the ground that it needs more time to consult all its provinces.

On June 2015, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) signed the landmark Motor Vehicles Agreement for the Regulation of Passenger, Personnel, and Cargo Vehicular Traffic among the four South Asian neighbors in Thimphu, Bhutan. This major initiative between sub-grouping of four SAARC nations is expected to pave the way for a seamless mobility of people and goods across each other borders for the benefit and integration of the region, thereby pushing economic development in South Asia at large.

India only has bilateral motor vehicle agreements with Nepal and Bangladesh but a multilateral agreement would go a long way in boosting trade in the region. The agreement opens up the possibility of turning border roads into economic corridors which could increase inter-regional trade within South Asia by 60%.

India has tapped on its eastern neighbours and the framework of the new agreement was finalised in a meeting of the transport secretaries of the four countries at the South Asia Sub-regional Economic Cooperation (SASEC) — another grouping of south Asian countries which includes India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka — held in Kolkata in February 2015. Pakistan is not part of this grouping. SASEC was set up in 2001 to bring together these six countries to promote regional prosperity and boost trade by improving cross-border connectivity. If Pakistan persists in its obstructionist agenda, New Delhi is signaling it would find itself marginalized in the larger South Asian dynamic.

India is pursuing a similar framework between India-Myanmar-Thailand (IMT), the Motor Vehicle Agreement (MVA) is almost ready and will be signed soon in order to get access to the larger ASEAN market through seamless passenger and cargo movement. The agreement was to be signed last year but it was delayed due to elections in Myanmar.

Image: South Asia’s total trade within the sub-region and with the world:

South Asia’s total trade within the subregion and with the world.
Source: Asia Regional Integration Center (ARIC) Integration Indicators Database. 

Asia has become the world’s most vibrant region because of its sustained economic growth over the last many decades. Maintaining this remarkable growth rate, however, requires market integration to ensure the free flow of goods, services, and capital across borders. Surely, the interplay of market forces and increased participation in the trade have been decisive in the growth of rising Asian economies. Until now, most of Asia’s final goods have been exported to Europe and the United States. Access to large markets allowed Asian countries to utilize their economies of scale on the one hand and encourage growth in their productive sectors on the other. With the rise of Asia, it is time for these countries to cooperate and become an integrated market of their own.