It was something that India did not want and Prime Minister I.K. Gujral had left no doubt about it. But in the declaration of the ninth summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation at Male, the leaders agreed to initiate a process of informal political consultations among the SAARC nations for "fostering good neighbourly relations, relieving tension and building confidence".
The idea had come from Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga who had first raised it in May 1995. The Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom went a step further. In his opening remarks at the summit, he called for initiating a parallel process of political dialogue leading to a SAARC declaration on the principles of political cooperation and stability. This went far beyond what President Kumaratunga had suggested and turned out to be a non-starter. The Indian objections stemmed from a perception that political consultations could enter into tricky bilateral issues.
The agrement for informal political consultations is a major step for SAARC, whose success has been stymied by bilateral differences between member states. It should help the SAARC members to "clarify doubts and dispel suspicion", as Kumaratunga said. As Gayoom clarified at the end of the conference, it will not be used to resolve bilateral disputes between member-states. Still, it should help. For a change, no one explicitly asked that bilateral issues should be discussed in the SAARC forum-a demand that had been made by Pakistan and other memberstates to previous time. The measured speech by Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in this sense, helped set the right atmosphere for his subsequent meeting with Gujral. Gujral's own prepared speech was extremely poorly written and he saved the situation with his extempore answers to the points raised by earlier speakers.
But the summit appears to have set an unrealistic target of AD 2001 for ushering in the SAARC Free Trade Area (SAFTA). It was highlighted at the summit that its precursor, the SAARC Preferential Trading Arrangement (SAPTA), which entered into force in December 1995, is less than successful. Kumaratunga had complained that in the first two rounds of negotiations under SAPTA, tariff concessions have been exchanged on 2,000 items, but most of these do not have any major export potential for some members, while non-tariff barriers have remained in place. Pakistanis have a similar complaint as far as India is concerned. But then, they have failed to give India the Most Favoured Nation status, arguing that there should first be a level playing field in the business spheres.
The SAARC leaders are set on evaluating the organisation. And so, an Eminent Persons Group is to be set up to review the decade-old body.