: SAARC has its problems while BIMSTEC has energy and possibility, external affairs minister S Jaishankar said on Thursday, indicating that the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation holds greater promise for cooperation in South Asia.

“SAARC [South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation] has certain problems and we all know what they are. Even if you were to put terrorism aside… there are connectivity and trade issues. BIMSTEC leaders were invited for the Prime Minister’s swearing-in because we see energy, mindset and possibility in that grouping,” Jaishankar said at The Growth Net summit, his first public engagement after taking over as the external affairs minister. He was speaking during a session titled Changing World, Changing India.

The members of the Bay of Bengal grouping are India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand. The BIMSTEC region is home to more than 1.5 billion people or around 22% of the world’s population. Jaishankar said as the largest economy in South Asia, it was paramount for India to work harder to “incentivise cooperation” in the neigbourhood and it did not have to be “reciprocal” all the time.

The members of the SAARC grouping, founded in 1985, are India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Leaders from the SAARC nations were invited for the 2014 swearing-in of Prime Minister Modi, but grouping has got bogged down over the years due to the differences between New Delhi and Islamabad.

The Modi government has preferred to work through BIMSTEC over the last five years, linking it with its ‘neighbourhood first’ and ‘Act East’ policies.

Jaishankar also touched on the ongoing United States-China trade dispute arguing that every clash presented an opportunity.

“There are risks too. My job is to minimise the risks and maximize the opportunities. I think when we survey the landscape we need to see where our interests lie,” he said, adding that the scenario had become more complicated and required India “to raise its game”.

Jaishankar said swifter execution of projects in foreign countries would be a top priority for him as India “had come up short” in a number of areas. He said projects should be awarded on the basis of “capability and experience” rather than following only the L1 bidding process.

“A better sense of project and finance management in the MEA and a sense of strategy in the finance ministry…that cross-fertilisation will help,” Jaishankar said, revealing that he spent more time last week in the finance and commerce ministries than his own MEA.

On the National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) thumping victory in the Lok Sabha elections, the minister said it was very clear that the raft of programmes and efforts to bring change and give hope to the lowest strata of society made a “profound impact”.

“My big takeaway from the elections is that the five years of government created, kept alive and strengthened the expectation of change in the country…It was also a vote of confidence in the government’s ability to manage national security and foreign policy is integral to that,” he said.

Crediting his predecessor Sushma Swaraj, he said the ministry’s image had undergone a significant change globally during the last five years and the MEA would continue to give “enormous importance” to Indians facing any trouble around the world.

“Today there are expectations that the government will help. In earlier days, things worked only for ‘connected Indians’,” he said.

Jaishankar revealed that before getting the Cabinet berth, he was in the The Growth Net’s executive committee and associated with organising their 7th annual summit. On a lighter note, he added that they were then trying to figure out which minister to invite to the summit.

First Published:
Jun 06, 2019 19:41 IST

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