India’s Response to South Asian Regionalism

 Abstract: From the perspective of India, the article mainly focused on the reasons behind the inefficient functioning of SAARC. Additionally, the paper provides certain information that gives readers some insight into this issue and to analyze India’s political behavior during the course of collaboration amongst the countries. 


According to the World Bank data of 20191, India single-handedly holds almost 80% of the GDP, population, military power, and territory in the sub-continent. In the South Asian region, India borders with every country in the region; so, having borders with every country, it should work in such a way to maintain good relations with every country that it neighbors. If it successfully manages to pull this off, then India can emerge as a well-placed moderator and avoid conflict amongst other countries in the region. As with any developing nation, India constantly searches for new ways to increase the pace of development and the successful collaboration of the South Asian community is India’s ticket to achieving this feat. From the policy perspective, India always put the ‘neighborhood first’, only after that did the ‘extended neighborhood’ and extra-regional cooperation emerge. Known as the ‘Gujral doctrine’2, neighborhood first is the essence of India’s foreign policy. On the contrary, evaluating India’s neighborhood first approach and the relational dynamics with all its South Asian neighbors, India is in bad shape now due to various reasons.


With the expectations of regional collaboration, in 1985 the small countries of South Asia established a regional organization named SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation). A renowned scholar on regional affairs from South Asia Imtiaz H. Bokhari mentioned that India was reluctant to join the SAARC at first, due to the proposal coming from small states and India fear that it was a ‘small states’ gang up’ against India.i On the other hand Pakistan also feared that India would be able to institutionalize anti-Pakistan sentiments along with other states in the sub-continent. So, the establishment of the SAARC itself was guided by the fear, reluctance, and a hesitant mindset.

  • Taken from the World Bank Database:
  • India’s then Prime Minister’s neighborhood first foreign policy widely known as a ‘Gujral Doctrine’ has five principles. First, with neighbors like Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka, India does not ask for reciprocity, but gives and accommodates what it can in good faith and trust; second, no South Asian country should allow its territory to be used against the interest of another country of the region; third, no country should interfere in the internal affairs of another; fourth, all South Asian countries must respect each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty; and, finally, they should settle all their disputes through peaceful bilateral negotiations. Retrieved from:

Being inspired by the EU and ASEAN, South Asian Regionalism aimed to strengthen the relations between the countries and to achieve economic and political harmony in South Asia. Being one of the regions with the highest workforce and having abundant natural resources, South Asia is capable of achieving a collaborative development at a much faster pace. But there are several factors that have slowed this process down and will continue to impede this collaboration if countries do not find the perfect balance to benefit their own country but at the same time maintain friendly relations with neighboring countries. India’s reluctance in investing and collaborating with member states of SAARC can be understandable to a certain extent considering how the member states are failing to resolve their domestic issues. Although several countries in the region are responsible for this failing regionalism, India as the biggest country within the framework of regionalism automatically has the largest share of non-progress attitude of SAARC.


During the 35 years after the formation of SAARC, the unanimous decision of meeting every single year was not implemented perfectly. Out of 35 summits that were supposed to take place only 18 have taken place. Even these meetings took place after several cancellations which occurred due to concentrating on bilateral agreements rather than keeping multilateral agreements as the priority. There are a series of summits that have been canceled due to India’s bilateral issues with bordering countries. The conflict between India and Sri Lanka over the Tamil issue led to a delay of summits and Sri Lanka kept refusing to hold the summit unless India withdrew their troops. There was a 4-month delay due to tussles between India and Sri Lanka. In the 6th and 7th summit, tense relations between India and Bangladesh caused the summit to be delayed from 1992 and 1994 to 1993 and 1995. The last summit (19th summit) was canceled by India due to tensions between India and Pakistan in Kashmir. India has let itself be blinded and does not see the bigger picture and chooses to focus on disputes with neighboring countries.


Although India played a hand in slowing down the cooperation between members of SAARC there certainly have been achievements through the establishment of this regional council. India played a huge role in the securing of development funds, establishing the food bank, South Asian University, telemedicine network, and judicial cooperation on counter-terrorism and extradition procedures. Economic cooperation led to the SAFTA agreement and resulted in a significant lowering of tariff rates.


At the other end of the spectrum, India has not successfully managed to water down the traditional ‘Small states vs Big states’ complexity. India is only a cooperative nation on paper; in reality they often fail to adhere to their so-called cooperative nature. Often, India has border disputes with neighbouring countries, and they find themselves failing at using the tool of diplomacy. Being the biggest and most powerful country in a region comes with certain responsibilities and requires a certain diplomatic skillset to achieve political and economic harmony in the region. Unfortunately, currently, India does not display the qualities that make a country a leader of their region. This will lead to decreased credibility for the voice of the South Asian region on a global platform.


The Hindustani nation has let their bilateral issues come in between multilateral cooperation and is ignorant of the damage that it is causing to the potential development of the region. This ignorant attitude is making India look like an unskilled leader of the region in the eyes of Western and Eastern countries. If India wishes to gain political and economic power and if they would like to have influence and significance on an international platform, then a successful working model of SAARC is necessary.



Adithyan Nair

Undergrad student, University of Warsaw, Poland


Bibliography :


  1. Jiali, M. (2012). SAARC: Achievements and Challenges. Policy Perspectives, 9(1), 161-165. Retrieved June 29, 2020, from table/42922698
  2. Sridharan, K. (2009). COLLABORATION UNDER ANARCHY: FUNCTIONAL REGIONALISM AND THE SECURITY OF EAST ASIA (pp. 103-119, Rep.) (Tan S., Ed.). S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. Retrieved June 29, 2020, from
  3. Khan, B. (2008). India and the Making of a Hegemon. AQ: Australian Quarterly, 80(1), 29-40. Retrieved June 29, 2020, from
  4. Sengupta, A. (2020). SAARC and India – Why India needs a strong SAARC. Retrieved 29 June 2020, from
  1. Yhome, Tridivesh Singh Maini (2017), India’s Evolving Approach to Regionalism: SAARC and Beyond, Rising Power Quarterly, 2(3), Retrieved June 29, 2020, from
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