New Delhi, Feb 20 IANS | 10 months ago

Despite close linkages, including historical and geographical, the South Asian region has not witnessed the kind of integration it should have, experts at a seminar said here Thursday.

They noted that a higher level of integration has eluded the region though most of its countries are going through or have undergone a state of political transition.

According to Rajiv K. Bhatia, director general of the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), 2014 has been rightly described as 'The Year of the Voter' in South Asia.

"Between mid-2013 and mid-2014, most countries of the region, namely Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and India, would have completed their national elections," he said.

"Afghanistan would not only go through elections but also cope with a new reality, the drawdown or withdrawal of international troops after over a decade. Sri Lanka, which held important provincial elections in September 2013, would start preparing for national elections in 2015. Myanmar, traversing on the reform path, too will face national elections in 2015," he said.

S.D. Muni, a leading expert on South Asian affairs, said despite India having contributed majorly in "breakthrough solutions" in its neighbourhood, it has not been able to take it forward. He said India's political leadership "has little time for foreign policy and even less for neighbours".

"India's federalism and mercurial coalition politics is impacting its relations with neighbours," Muni said, and added that India would have to keep up with its engagement with neighbours. "It is an imperative."

Sheel Kant Sharma, former secretary general of SAARC, said that Pakistan has over the years "shrunk its participation" in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. He said SAARC lacks meetings at high levels, leading to a slowdown in integration.

Sharma said that irrespective of conditions favouring cooperation, the issue of which country is heading the body had a bearing on developments. "A state of on-off bilateral entente between major players has a domineering hold," said the former ambassador.

In 2007-08, when India held the chair of SAARC and was on better ties with Pakistan, cooperation moved forward. But in 2009 when Pakistan-India ties came under strain, Islamabad seemed to also shrink its involvement in SAARC meetings, he said.

Former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal said that after Nawaz Sharif took over as the prime minister, there was hope of betterment in India-Pakistan ties.

But, he said, Sharif's "hobnobbing" with the terror elements and his "raising the political ante on Kashmir" and of late putting economic ties on the backburner till the Indian general elections are over have come as a dampener in bilateral ties.

The experts were addressing the Asian Relations Conference (ARC-V) on "Transitions and Interdependence: India and its Neighbours", organised by ICWA and the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS) at Sapru House here. It is the fifth edition of the Asian Relations Conference series.

(Posted on 20-02-2014)

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