ARTICLES

BLUEPRINT FOR A SAARC LEGISLATURE

 By
M.L. Sondhi and Shrikant Paranjpe

The Asian Age, June 25, 1996

At the level of South Asia, India would have to evolve a new political framework of interaction with the states of South Asia.  The new governing image would have to overcome the earlier reluctance towards a political dialogue at a multilateral level within South Asia.  SAARC today offers a unique forum for India to channelise the building up of a new order in South Asia.  Such an order need not go to the extent of denying India a dominant position, but it can remain short of becoming hegemonic.

A broad-based popular parliamentary forum for South Asia can be formulated on the following principles:

  • That it is not dominated by any single nation-state in South Asia.

  • That it promotes the shared management of economic, technological, developmental, and environmental problems on an equitable basis.

  • That in dealing with political and security issues the operational norms of partnership and common security are adhered to.

  • That political trust and cooperation are fostered by legislative conflict resolution.

  • That it unreservedly recognizes the right to identity at local, national and regional levels and will foster solution of social conflicts through mutual understanding and non-violent means.

This section attempts to construct a tentative model of a SAARC parliament.  This draws on the European experience that helped to harmonise the moral and political aspirations of different groups.  But this model remains South Asian in that it seeks to incorporate the fundamental principle of “unity in diversity” that has remained the key to national integration and harmony in India.  It recognizes the unique social cultural and ethnic identity of diverse peoples of South Asia and yet seeks a thread of unity in that diversity.

The SAARC parliament model envisages a two-stage development.  The first stage is a transition stage where government influence over the organization will be high.  The second stage is the final phase where popular participation will increase.  Two fundamental concerns have been kept in mind in the institutionalization of the political compulsions and economic imperatives.  The former would include the apathy or reluctance of governments to part with power and authority to what may appear a supra-national authority in the organization.  The latter refers to the urgent need to restructure the economies of these countries into a cooperative rather than competitive framework. A look at the trade pattern figures would reveal the disparities and the need to shift expenditure patterns from defence-related expenditure to development-related expenditure.

The SAARC parliament may be structured as follows:

Secretary-General: This office would be held for a designated period of five or six years by a distinguished political personality.  The method of appointment would essentially remain the same as at present.  This would be a consensus appointment and care would be taken to ensure that all countries get due representation. 

Speaker of the SAARC Parliament:  The parliament would be presided over by the Speaker elected by the members of parliament.  The parliament would also be assisted by a secretariat that can coordinate the activities of the parliament.  The relationship between the parliament as a primary deliberative body and the council of ministers as a basic executive/decision-making body needs to be deliberated upon.  The position of the Secretary General would be that of the head of the SAARC.  His position vis--vis the parliament may be comparable with that of a President in a parliamentary system.  Here he would also be the chairman of the council of ministers.  Since the parliament is a deliberative body, its resolutions would be recommendatory and would be sent to the council of ministers for further action.

Council of Ministers:  The composition would be of seven members, one from each country.  Decisions would be taken on the basis of unanimity and consensus.  This would be the executive body having the powers to make policy decisions.  In the first stage the members of the council should be appointed by each government.  This sets at rest apprehension of the countries about their policies being implemented or otherwise.  During the first stage the council may not be kept bound by the decisions of the parliament which can act mainly as a deliberative body.  In the second stage, however, the council would have to evolve a sense of political autonomy and not be totally dependent on the home government for policy directions.

This can be done by electing the council members from the parliament.  A new balance would also have to be struck whereby deliberations of the parliament would have to be taken note of by the council.  The above structure represents only a preliminary outline of the SAARC parliament.  It is, however, a deliberate attempt to project structural dimensions of the new proposed system within the political perspectives that demand attention today.

Parliament:  Unlike Europe, South Asia presents a peculiar geopolitical feature of having one large country and other small countries.  This precludes equality of representation at the numerical level.  Secondly diverse ethnic groups exist in almost all countries.  This further entails the need to make representation as broad-based as possible.  A third significant problem is the differences in level of political modernization and democratization in these countries.

If cooperation is to be enhanced in the regional legislature, the physical composition must be determined in a way that equally eschews Indian paternalism and intransigence on the part of Pakistan or Bangladesh.  The precondition of wholehearted participation in building a regional community would be a membership pattern which provides an adequate political role by all the member states in the SAARC Parliament.  In this context the following requirements suggest themselves:

  • India will be a willing participant in building the regional community if it is not denied an opportunity to orient its national interest towards wider regional concerns.  The fact that it does not have a co-equal in SAARC does not justify blackmailing India into undermining her interests in the regional legislature.

  • India has to avoid one-sided approaches which would aggravate the feelings of other member states that they are unequal partners in a common region.  The SAARC parliament cannot equalize all these countries but its membership can be weighted in a manner which facilitates stable political solutions.

  • The social, economic and political elites of South Asia have not gained their legitimate place in the international community chiefly on account of their failure to develop adequate cooperative activities of their own in the South Asian region.  Cultural relations and dialogue in the sub-continent do not reflect the rich heritage of the region.  A fairly large membership of the regional parliament is necessary if it is to have an impact on the internal situation in member countries and the MSPs (Members of the SAARC Parliament) are to achieve self-esteem.  The SAARC parliament’s potential for entirely new forms of political expression requires the underpinnings of a new system of political socialization and circulation of elites.

  • The fixing of membership quotas for the SAARC parliament will undoubtedly be a highly contentious issue with far reaching consequences for the future of the regional legislature.  However problematic, the following allocation is suggested primarily in view of its practical rationale.

 Proposed Membership of SAARC Parliament

India

150

Bangladesh

75

Pakistan

75

Nepal

50

Sri Lanka

50

Bhutan

20

Maldives

20

Total

440

The existing situation necessitates a two or three stage development of the proposed SAARC parliament.  In the first stage the parliament would be composed of members elected/selected by respective governments or their parliaments.  In the second stage the members would have to come from a more representative electorate.  In countries like India and Pakistan the state legislative may send representatives while in other countries their local bodies may elect members.  The methodology of representation would have to be the decision of the country concerned.

The parliament would be essentially a deliberative body.  Its primary function would be to open issues for discussion.  It may be an excellent forum for regional/ethnic voices.  Legitimate aspirations for regional identity or greater fiscal autonomy that tend to get crushed under centralization tendencies would not carry the label of “anti- national” if they are voiced in a regional parliament.  In Kashmir, for example, there is a serious handicap that the Islamabad and the New Delhi governments have to overcome.  Both are trapped in their perceptions of a final solution for Kashmir.  It is precisely in such a context that SAARC legislature could recognize and accommodate Kashmir’s interest within the cohesive regional unity and break the present vicious circle, without infringing legal claims.

 
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