A South Asian Parliament: Killing Us Softly

When was the last time that SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) nations made any significant contribution to solve issues in the neighbourhood? It has not been possible because there is way too much bad blood between us. Besides that, all the nations are internally fractured; some have western troops stationed within their borders. Is idealism, then, a practical solution?

At the current SAARC Conference of Speakers and Parliamentarians in Delhi, Pakistan's National Assembly Speaker Fehmida Mirza came up with a suggestion that sounds good at the coffee table:

“I would like to propose that this forum graduates to the next level where eventually the idea of a South Asian Parliament becomes a reality. Through this idea, I am envisioning a Parliament that commands the trust of 1.7 billion South Asians —- the largest forum of its kind anywhere in the world. I am envisioning a body of legislators, which enables our respective countries to negotiate sustainable solutions to our numerous bilateral and multilateral problems. I am envisioning a forum that will, in fact, infuse a new life into SAARC exactly in the same manner as the European Parliament remains the driving force behind the European Union.”

This is pretty much a repetition of the echoes of “If Berlin can do it then why can’t we?” It is true that Germany has managed to coalesce and the European Union is the tangible face of such a possibility. However, while their histories reveal animosity, there were alignments with other nations during the two major world wars. Their independence, when it happened, was complete. We are still tied to the apron strings of the Commonwealth and run to the UN, where not all the South Asian nations have a say.

Ms. Mirza’s optimism about the 1.7 billion chooses to ignore that India will be the superpower by sheer dint of numbers. Together with this, we also have an India that is significantly more stable and has greater clout. It is also an India that is not particularly interested in its neighbours except as nuisance value, and with sound reason. In such circumstances, when one nation is protecting its borders from three sides, how will it play an important role without keeping in mind its own delicate position?

We have always negotiated bilaterally. Are we ready for Nepal or Bangladesh to pipe in with their views, given that we have problems with them, too?

Ms. Mirza is looking at the future through rose-tinted glasses:

“The lessons of past help us plan our future. In Pakistan, we learnt these lessons the hard way. So when democracy made a comeback in 2008 in our country, the democratic forces pledged to protect and consolidate it by building a strong Parliament, capable of delivering on decades old promises.”

Again, democracy is a pennant that is held up. It does not change the ground realities. Since she has mentioned Pakistan’s example, has there been any attempt to build a strong Parliament? Is democracy about a group chattering away when there are bomb blasts killing civilians every other day? Who has stopped the countries from being “vibrant democracies”?

There is internal strife and there are forces among these countries that try to cause problems for the other. The South Asian Parliament may confabulate but it will be a nice whitewash job while the dirt remains under the carpet. It can also prove to be a sneaky means of scoring points and diverting attention from the backdoor moves being made. Moreover, it will certainly not replace each nation’s government and its policies, so there could be a conflict of interest built into this white elephant Parliament itself.

Interestingly, Ms. Mirza quoted from Nandan Nilekani’s book ‘Imagining India’ to discuss our common shanties and school dropouts. Seriously, it was an ironic moment when she said:

“And when he lamented the tendency of the governments towards repression, I found answers to our people’s disenchantment with the entire democratic process.”

Perhaps it is time to send her a dossier on how the Manmohan Singh government hired Mr. Nilekani to tag people in a manner that Rupert Murdoch would have liked to take tips from.

There are kinds and kinds of repression and right now all the SAARC nations need to put their own houses in order and throw shoes, break chairs and scream in the well of their respective parliaments. We cannot afford fireside chats and legislators who work like comfort men and women. Open travel, open trade, open doors are wonderful but we know what happens and even if it does not the ghosts stalk and doubts are raised. We cannot manage bus services without running metal detectors and security personnel, so all this talk amounts to nothing.

What we need to examine and get into our dense heads is that apart from the electoral process, none of our countries is a practising democracy in the truest sense.

(c) Farzana Versey


  1. It would be a good idea.

    just like Gandhi said about the Western Civilization :)

  2. Now, here is a longer version :)

    >>> It is true that Germany has managed to coalesce and the European Union is the tangible face of such a possibility.

    In fact, My thinking on this is that in South Asia linguistic identities have trumped all others. India due to its size obviously generates fear and suspicion and most of it well-deserved. So, the natural thing to do is the opposite of what EU is doing. which is to truly separate them out and likely Pakistani punjabis may go with Indian and create their own little Germany.

    EU as it is constructed looks more and more like train-wreck. Also, it is an umbrella for aging european countries to counter other larger competitors like China and US. Not to mention, the old Anglo-French rivalries.

    India is already straining to make accountable transparent govt of 1 billion people; imagine doing that with 1.7 billion. Right thing to do is to create no more than 50-100m population states (more or less on linguistic boundary) and then a loose federation of them for the purposes of common foreign policy, currency and defense.

    Bad blood or not, given rightful ownership of their respective voices and then common desire to compete and prosper in global economy will require them all to co-operate. Currently, they are all run like personal fiefdoms of old ruling oligarchies.

    >>> none of our countries is a practising democracy in the truest sense.

    and populations there also keep looking up to Bhuttos and Gandhis to find them the nirvana.

    Only way this works is to make sizes of these govts more manageable so that people can directly communicate with their elected leaders and more importantly bureaucrats and hold them accountable.

    More federalism is the need of the hour not more centralization.


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