Twenty-two years after their first summit in Dhaka, South Asia's heads of state and government are still debating the future of the world's largest regional grouping. The over 800 journalists who gathered in New Delhi to cover the 14th SAARC Summit had virtually nothing new to report on.
Kashmir continues to be the core issue for Pakistan. Multilateralism in its relationship with India is still the main concern of Bangladesh. Maldivian strongman Mohammed Abdul Gayoom, who has been associated with SAARC since its inception, is content with the ceremonial nature of the organisation.
There is no room in the SAARC charter for observers, but that didn't stop the foreign ministers of China, Japan, and South Korea, and representatives from the United States and the European Union from addressing the inaugural session. Nepal was responsible for China's entry as an observer at the last summit. But Kathmandu needs to watch out-if SAARC turns into an arena of contestation for spheres of influence, Kathmandu will have everything to lose and nothing to gain, just as it did during the Cold War, when it aligned itself too closely with the United States.
There is distrust all around. Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse became a media celebrity when he made the benign suggestion of a common currency. But Rajapakse might not know that, though people are allowed to move freely across the Nepal-India border, Indian rupees in denominations higher than 100 can't.
Such examples are legion, and make it difficult to see how South Asian unity, as envisioned by futuristic civil society activists from Bengal, Punjab, and Sindh, as realistic. We need a different imagining of South Asia.
At least three of South Asia's formal leaders have a banking background. Chief Advisor of Bangladesh's interim government, Fakhruddin Ahmed, and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh are former World Bank employees. Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz is a Citicorp product. They are more comfortable with figures than with facts. Thus all the hoopla over a common market, single currency, consolidated funds for poverty alleviation, and connectivity.
All good ideas and important issues. But we first need to reduce the mutual suspicion that runs rampant in the region. Creating emotional unity among South Asians is as important as creating institutions and instruments of regional cooperation. Why not think about a South Asian University?
There are other non-controversial issues too. Since all 'national' time zones of the region are equally mocked, how about having a common South Asian Standard Time? In 4BCE, when the subcontinent was home to an extraordinarily forward-looking civilisation, Ujjain marked the first meridian of longitude in Indian geography.
Even with Afghanistan joining the SAARC family, Ujjain still remains almost at the centre of South Asia. Why not take time from here to represent all of us spread across the subcontinent, from Kabul to Kohima, Kashmir to Colombo. And Ujjain is probably a better location for a proposed South Asian University than the officious and chauvinistic New Delhi. Ujjain has good land links, and air connections through Indore to all the capitals of the region.
We'd also do well to appoint a South Asian Minority Commission to report on the status of human rights in marginalised populations at the yearly summits. Better a reprimand from responsible citizens of the region than be taken to task at international fora by Amnesty International or UN agencies.
English is the South Asian lingua franca. But if SAARC is to emerge as people's organisation rather than the talk shop of its ruling elite, Hindostani will have to be given a fair chance to establish itself as an alternative.
Common public service broadcasting, propagation of shared cultural values, and celebration of the region's diversity will create the grounds for the emergence of a South Asian Union-with a common currency, a single passport, and a distinctive identity. It's a historic process that can't be hurried along by the region's insecure leaders who gather every year or two for a couple of days of ritualistic bonhomie.