COLOMBO: Pakistan has been working hard to host the 19 th.Summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), as it is its legitimate turn to do so. But will India, which broke the summit slated to be held in Islamabad in 2016, allow it this time round? The prospects look dim.

The November 2016 had to be postponed indefinitely on account of India’s refusal to participate alleging Pakistan’s role in the terror attacks on Indian military bases in Pathankot in Punjab and Uri in Kashmir.

Following India, Bangladesh opted out complaining that Pakistan is fomenting religious and political tension by propping up pro-Pakistan and anti-liberation Islamic fundamentalist groups in that country. Afghanistan too walked out citing Pakistan’s role in propping up the Taliban and other radical militant groups.

Bhutan followed India as it normally does, and Sri Lanka was persuaded by New Delhi to follow suit using its clout in the island. Strange as it may seem, even Maldives opted out.

Be that as it may, the summit cannot be postponed for ever. The norm is to hold it every year, though in practice there has been a gap of about 18 months between summits.

And although India has been viewing SAARC with suspicion fearing that it is a ploy of the rest of the South Asian region to gang up against it and thwarts its hegemony, the rest of the member countries have been looking at the association in a favorable light. Collectively, they think they are in a better position to assert themselves vis-à-vis the regional hegemon.

It is significant that Pakistan’s new Foreign Secretary, Tehmina Janjua, chose to visit Sri Lanka first after taking over the post at the end of 2017. At her meeting with Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, Janjua extracted a promise that Sri Lanka would support Pakistan’s stand on the summit.

Janjua’s visit to Colombo came a day after Pakistan scored an important victory at the UN when it got a seat at the UN Human Rights Council thanks to Sri Lanka’s support. Another crucial win for Pakistan-Sri Lanka relations came in the field of sports with Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) deciding that the national team will play in Lahore at the end of 2017. This would be the Sri Lankan team’s first visit to Pakistan since after a terrorist attack on it in 2009.

“We are delighted that the Sri Lankan team is visiting Lahore. Pakistanis will cheer the Sri Lankans as much as their own team. There are no security issues to be worried about”, Janjua said pleasing her Lankan audience. And Colombo’s state-owned Daily News hailed Janua’s visit as a “win for Pakistani diplomacy.”

The Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain invited President Sirisena to visit Islamabad and the latter obliged him in March this year. During the visit, the President Mamnoon personally came to the airport to receive Sirisena as a 21 gun salute was given. In his meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, the latter appealed to Sirisena to help hold the SAARC summit in Islamabad.

Pakistan is committed to the SAARC process, Abbasi said, and urged the Sri Lankan President to “play his role for the early convening of the SAARC Summit in Islamabad.” But it is not clear if the Sri Lankan President assented to the Pakistani request as the press communiqué gave no clue.

Regardless of that, it can be safely assumed that Sri Lanka would like to support Pakistan on this issue, though it may not actually carry out its wish in deference to Big Brother India. And India’s attitude to Pakistan has shown no sign of having changed since 2016.

In fact, India’s anti-Pakistan stance has become more pronounced as seen in the row over the surveillance mounted on diplomats of the two countries. The Pakistani Ambassador had even left New Delhi albeit temporarily.

With the Indian parliamentary elections due in May 2019, hardline Prime Minister Narendra Modi would like to tweak his anti-Pakistan posture further in the hope of getting the Hindu nationalistic vote in a closely fought election. During the Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh State Assembly elections, he had dubbed the rival Congress Party a “stooge” of Pakistan and had declared that the latter’s victory would be “Pakistan’s victory”.

But India too has been cultivating President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Recently, Sirisena was given a prominent place in the international solar summit held in Delhi, where Narendra Modi heaped much praise on the Sri Lankan leader for his commitment to clean energy. And Sirisena made the visit to New Delhi on March 11 even though there had been communal conflagration in Kandy district between March 2 and 10. However, Sirisena will have a hard time taking a decision on having Islamabad as the venue of the SAARC summit.

While Afghanistan and Bhutan are expected to go along with India on the matter, Nepal is likely to exercise its discretion, especially now because the Nepalese communist Prime Minister K.P.Oli and his Maoist ally, Prachanda, are not as well disposed towards India as the traditionally pro-India Center-Left party the Nepali Congress.

The Maldives could have gobe the Pakistan way, given its contradictions with India since Abdulla Yameen became President in 2013. But Maldives -India relations have improved of late with Yameen trying to win New Delhi over, and New Delhi pledging not to militarily intervene in the Indian Ocean archipelago where Yameen is locked in an interminable conflict with the opposition, endangering democratic institutions.

Bangladesh too is expected to oppose the location of the summit in Islamabad because the Sheikh Hasina regime there continues to be bitterly anti-Pakistan.

With parliamentary elections due in July 2018, and with the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) likely to contest and not boycott as it did the last time, Sheikh Hasina could well queer the anti-Pakistani nationalistic pitch. In fact on Genocide Day (March 25), Hasina told a rally that “those Bangladeshis living in independent Bangladesh who love Pakistan should be punished.”

Special courts had sentenced pro-Pakistani leaders to death for their alleged role in the 1971 genocide as tools in the hands of the Pakistani authorities.

Pakistan could play the China card to put pressure on India to bend. But that is becoming difficult since India itself making friendly moves towards China after Vijay Gokhale became Foreign Secretary.

Both Prime Minister Modi and Foreign Minister Sushsma Swaraj are to make high profile visits to Beijing later this year, and by all accounts, Beijing is eager to build bridges with India to make its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in South Asia acceptable to India.

According to The Indian Express India has even told China that it will not stop China from investing in South Asian countries though these are its “backyard”.

But the question that remains to be answered is: Can India continue to block the SAARC summit being held in Islamabad, without losing its moral authority in the grouping which its neighbors considers important?

Commenting on the isolation of Pakistan, Ankit Panda of The Diplomat wondered if isolation alone can change Pakistan’s behavior in regard to the export of terror.

“Despite increasing blood thirst across India for use of the country’s hard power toolkit against Pakistan, every government, including Modi’s, knows the reasons why strategic restraint is really the only viable course,” he asserts.

“Others have suggested the unilateral abrogation of the decades-old Indus Waters Treaty, dealing a blow to Pakistan’s water security in retaliation. But that too could end up an own goal for India, severely undermining Delhi’s hard-won reputation as a responsible rising power. The abrogation could come back to bite India as it seeks membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group,” Panda says.

And wrecking SAARC through the continuous postponement of the summit will only further alienate India from its South Asian neighbors, which see value in SAARC, unlike India.

(Cover Photo: Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain warmly greet Sri Lankan counterpart Maithripala Sirisena)