A bold but distant dream for South Asia
The recent proposal by the speaker of Pakistan's National Assembly, Dr Fehmida Mirza, of a possible South Asian parliament has stirred up a healthy debate.
Mirza mooted the idea at the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (Saarc) conference this month. And though the concept of a non-legislative joint forum for Saarc lawmakers has been floated since 1995, Mirza's renewed call gives impetus to talk of a supranational entity that can surmount the socio-religious and ideological barriers splitting the region.
In spite of the subcontinent's inability to evolve a healthy political culture based fully on democracy, a South Asian parliament can nevertheless be the fulcrum for harmonising people's aspirations, strengthening regional identity and aiding contact. Such an institution promises to be the largest umbrella body of legislators anywhere on earth, representing a mammoth 1.7billion people.
In fact, the Saarc parliament was originally conceptualised as a crisis resolution mechanism capable of monitoring the economic and strategic security interests of the region. But, a legacy of mistrust and perpetual bloodshed emerging out of a protracted conflict between India and Pakistan has effectively ensured that this noble idea remain a non-starter for 15 years.
Aziz Ahmad Khan, a retired Pakistani envoy to India, believes greater interaction between the parliamentarians of the two countries could help untangle the mistrust and acrimony.
The agenda might find a place in the upcoming India-Pakistan foreign secretary level dialogue. Eliminating outstanding disputes and creating institutional structures that member nations can agree on is an essential pre-requisite of setting up a meaningful regional parliament.
Since a consensus on economic and foreign policy must first be reached, a well-calibrated and progressive approach is necessary.
The success of the European Union lay in its ability to build a durable economic community that translated into a robust continental fraternity. Of all the regional parliamentary experiments, the European parliament stands out for being pivotal to the complex decision-making structure of the EU.
By contrast, South Asia has not even developed a free trade area, let alone an economic union like the EU's, one former diplomat observed. Even the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has refrained from instituting anything like a parliament, he pointed out. With the Mumbai terrorist attacks a continuing source of friction between India and Pakistan, a regional parliament is likely to be a distant dream in spite of popular demand.
Seema Sengupta is an India-based journalist