KATHMANDU, NEPAL -- Understandably, the recent coup in Pakistan, and consequent unrest in that country, continue to worry observers around the world. But few outside South Asia realize that the political upheaval in Pakistan has created an innocent victim.
The annual Summit of South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC), scheduled for this weekend in Kathmandu, was postponed after India's declaration that the time wasn't suitable to holding a "productive" summit.
The Indian withdrawal, the first-ever by a SAARC member-state on grounds of developments in a neighboring country, sets a dangerous precedent. Commentators fear that other SAARC members might decide to follow India's example, setting off more postponements.
In the extreme case, it might even derail the fragile SAARC process, which at least brings together the ever-warring India and Pakistan to the negotiating table each year and helps bring about detente between the two nuclear powers.
Some might argue SAARC hasn't delivered much anyway -- so why worry if the summit has been postponed? One of the last regional groupings of the world formed in mid-1980s, SAARC has achieved little in terms of its avowal for a poverty-free South Asia, unlike its counterpart Association of East Asian Nations, whose member-states such as Indonesia and Thailand have been more successful. But at least SAARC has been able to bring together seven disparate nations -- Ban-gladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Nepal, India and Pakistan.
SAARC members, representing a fifth of humanity, realize that they have to quickly make up for the lost time, and without a collective voice, they will be even further marginalized in such global forums as the World Trade Organization.
Because of the postponement of the 11th SAARC summit, its members will have to wait at least a few more months to put the regional cooperation back on track, if that happens at all.
And the stakes got higher after the recent India-Pakistan conflict. The two sides were expected to sort out their hostilities on the summit sidelines, much as they did last year during the Colombo Summit that followed the tit-for-tat nuclear tests.
Hawkish elements in India and Pakistan toned down their bellicosity after the meeting in Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital. To build on the bonhomie established with the Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the summit, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee surprised the world early this year when he took a bus ride to Lahore, Pakistan to shake hands with Sharif.
Sharif was swept out of power by the army in early October, and is on trial in a special anti-terrorism court convened by the military goverment.
Sharif has been charged with treason, hijacking and conspiracy to murder. He faces the death penalty. The charges stem from his alleged denial of permission to allow a plane to land carrying coup leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and 200 passengers.
India demanded that the Kathmandu summit be deferred "on account of the military coup d'etat in Pakistan and the consequent concern and disquiet expressed in the region and beyond."
The SAARC charter stresses that all important decisions, such as finalizing the summit dates, are taken on consensus. But the Indian proposal ultimately led Sri Lankan Prime Minister Chandrika Kumaratunga, the current chair of SAARC, to announce the summit postponement early this month.
India's reluctance to deal with Pakistan's military regime might appear to be all right, even impressive, to the liberal West, which sits oceans apart. But a closer scrutiny will reveal India's double standards. It had little trouble dealing with other dictators in the region in the past. In fact, Bhutan, one of its closest allies, is ruled by King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, South Asia's last remaining autocrat.
Even when one assumes that India was motivated -- at least this time -- by a sincere desire to restore democracy in Pakistan, it still has committed a diplomatic blunder.
It is very much in the world's interest to make Pakistan feel that it is a responsible nation and has certain commitments to its neighbors. Democracy or no democracy, an isolated Pakistan, sitting next to Iran and Afghanistan, is a dangerous prospect -- not the least now that we are aware of its nuclear might.
India's motives for opposing the summit were wholly Pakistan-specific and devoid of any universal considerations or political principle, says Praful Bidwai, a noted Indian columnist. He points out that India has for decades happily dealt with nondemocracies, from Sukarno and Suharto's Indonesia to Idi Amin's Uganda. "But today, India is keen to put Islamabad on the defensive and persuade that India alone in South Asia is a stable, 'responsible' democracy and hence pre-eminent strategic ally for the only remaining Super Power."
Bidwai believes that New Delhi is seeking the status of United States' junior ally and assumes it can exploit Washington's concerns over Osma bin Laden and Pakistan's links with Taliban.
Whatever might be the Indian motive behind the withdrawal, one thing is certain. India has once again been exposed as a regional hegemon that rides roughshod over the sentiments of its smaller neighbors whenever it feels convenient. As Nepal's Foreign Minister Ram Sharan Mahat, the summit host, was crying himself hoarse in a desperate bid to salvage the summit, New Delhi launched a malicious campaign through its powerful media, saying it was emerging democracies like Nepal and Bangladesh who were nervously watching the developments in Pakistan, and they wanted the summit postponed.
Sri Lanka, which itself is a victim of a similar Indian campaign in the past, quickly came to Nepal's defense, declaring that "a deviation from the path of collective endeavor commenced through SAARC would have serious and damaging consequences for the progress, prosperity, peace and security of South Asia." Hence, it would be wise to move ahead with the summit.
When all its design to get the postponement proposal moved through Bangladesh or Sri Lanka failed, India finally wrote an official letter to host Nepal and summit chair Sri Lanka, demanding the postponement.
Always wary of India, Nepalis have one more unpleasant memory of their giant neighbor.
Officials in the Himalayan kingdom are totally lost for words. Seven Mercedes Benzes, scores of other luxury cars and escorting vehicles imported for the summit are gathering dust in an army barracks in Kathmandu.
"Maybe they could be used in the future when distinguished foreign guests visit Nepal," said a disappointed official at the Foreign Ministry. Nepali taxpayers hope the guests will be none other than SAARC heads of state, or government, who were scheduled to attend the November summit.
Akhilesh Upadhyay is the chief reporter for the Kathmandu Post.