Title: Retelling the South Asian Narrative

Author: Policy Entrepreneurs, Inc.

Year of Publication: 2022


South Asia, home to a quarter of the global population and boasting a combined GDP of $4.3 trillion, finds itself at a critical juncture. The profound shifts in the political and economic landscape over the past three decades have led to remarkable growth. While India commands a significant share, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal have steadily woven their tales of progress, asserting their influence in the region. Against this backdrop, a subtle geopolitical rivalry emerges, with influential donors such as the US, China, and India positioning themselves in the region. Each asserts its legitimacy through substantial investments in infrastructure and strategic aid. This dynamic interplay paints a nuanced landscape for recipient countries, offering both opportunities and distinctive challenges.

To understand the discourse of South Asia’s geopolitics through a different lens, PEI hosted a webinar, calling on regional collaborators to position a new narrative. As we navigate the intricacies of the South Asian story, our speakers provide unique perspectives. Dr. Lailufar Yasmin sheds light on Bangladesh’s collaborative success, George I H Cooke advocates for a nuanced historical examination, and Dr. Sagar Prasai emphasizes the imperative of balanced regional integration. The backdrop of a region with vast potential, yet constrained by infrastructure gaps and historical challenges, prompts pivotal questions. How can collaborative efforts surmount infrastructure deficits? How do we address historical grievances for a constructive future? What role does regional connectivity play in reshaping the South Asian narrative? How can South Asian nations strategically engage with global powers, and what initiatives can empower inclusive development? These were some of the questions raised during the webinar, with the responses from the speakers presented below.

Key Messages from the Speakers

Dr. Lailufar Yasmin highlights Bangladesh’s remarkable success, attributing it to the collaborative efforts between the government and non-government sectors. The implementation of government policies across Bangladesh, particularly in local infrastructure development and the completion of the Padma Bridge, stands as a testament to the nation’s achievements in connecting diverse regions.

George I H Cooke advocates for a nuanced examination of history, urging acknowledgment of both positive and negative aspects. He emphasizes the importance of broader engagement beyond government, underscoring the crucial role of civil society, academia, and people-to-people exchanges. George’s insights prompt essential questions on how historical grievances can be navigated for constructive and inclusive development.

Dr. Sagar Prasai underscores the imperative of balanced regional integration and the challenges of the ‘middle-income trap.’ He encourages proactive measures for South Asian nations to join the Asian century and stresses the need for navigating relationships with global powers, particularly India and China. Sagar’s insights raise questions about how regional integration can be achieved, and how South Asian nations can strategically engage with emerging powers for mutual benefit.

Insights on Connectivity and Integration

Better infrastructures and improved connectivity globally underline the importance of purposeful diplomacy. The imperative to improve connectivity within the region and India’s role in fostering gradual market integration raises questions on the feasibility and impact of such initiatives.

Regional Connectivity and Integration: South Asia, despite its potential, remains among the least connected regions globally. SAARC’s struggles with bilateral conflicts prompt questions about the effectiveness of regional platforms. Sub-regional initiatives like BIMSTEC and projects within BBIN through SASEC offer hope for cross-border connectivity.

India’s Role in Connectivity: India, as a centerpiece of regional projects, must take a leading role in fostering gradual market integration. The ambitious proposal to connect South Asian markets through West Asia with Europe is a positive step, prompting questions on the challenges and benefits of such initiatives.

India and China’s Role in Regional Integration: The relationship between Sri Lanka and Nepal, rooted in centuries of history, holds significant potential. Bangladesh’s support to Sri Lanka reflects the need to strengthen regional ties beyond ups and downs. The absence of substantive discussions at the last SAARC Summit raises questions about the effectiveness of regional platforms, emphasizing the urgency to strategize for the future.

China’s Contribution and Caution on Aid: China’s post-COVID efforts under BRI are encouraging. Its role as a new entrant in the region with substantial resources and global market influence offers opportunities. However, ensuring aid translates into economic gains and avoids becoming liabilities prompts questions about the region’s measured choices in aid and investments.

Dr. Sagar Prasai’s observations on India’s historical reluctance in regional integration highlight a crucial challenge. Smaller neighboring countries, initially optimistic about India’s leadership, are exploring independent pathways due to perceived hesitancy. Sagar advocates for a smarter handling of China’s influence, recognizing its potential benefits. He underscores that striking a balance between India and China requires collective efforts.

Recommendations from the Speakers

1. Advocate heightened regional collaboration to address infrastructure deficits. Encourage innovative financing models, including multilateral efforts and robust public-private partnerships, to mobilize the required funding for transformative infrastructure projects.

2. Support initiatives fostering open dialogue to address historical grievances. Facilitate cultural exchange programs that enhance mutual understanding and trust, acknowledging the shared histories and cultural ties within the region.

3. Champion regional economic integration for shared prosperity. Facilitate the negotiation and implementation of comprehensive trade and tariff agreements to eliminate barriers and stimulate cross-border economic cooperation.

4. Encourage South Asian nations to diversify diplomatic ties. Advocate for strategic engagement with emerging global powers while preserving and strengthening regional unity.

5. Elevate non-governmental sectors, academia, and civil society in shaping development policies. Prioritize initiatives that empower communities, ensuring that development strategies are inclusive and address the needs of all segments of society.


Retelling the South Asian Narrative requires addressing historical grievances, promoting regional collaboration, and embracing connectivity. Implementing policy recommendations can pave the way for a resilient, prosperous, and inclusive South Asia, fostering sustainable development and shared prosperity. The challenges are significant, but the collective efforts of the region can overcome obstacles and usher in a transformative era.