Prime Minister Narendra Modi has now set his eyes on recalibrating New Delhi’s outreach to the resource-rich Central Asian Republics (CARs) in an attempt to limit if not match China’s dominant presence in those countries. His current sojourn to the five countries in Central Asia is clearly designed to build upon last 25 years of India’s diplomatic investment in the region.
In the 1990s, when the CAR countries had just broken away from the Soviet Union, New Delhi had made it a point to immediately establish diplomatic relations with them. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, architect of India’s economic liberalisation, realised the importance of charting out a relationship with the newly-independent republics and was first off the block to visit a couple of them in the mid-1990s.Since then Central Asia has been part of India’s ‘extended neighbourhood.’ Although India has had ancient civilisational links with some those countries (because of the famous Silk Route which linked India to the vast expanse of what is now Central Asia), contemporary relations with them are largely driven by two major factors: security and counter-terrorism cooperation on one hand and economic ties and connectivity on the other.
Since then, New Delhi has steadily engaged with the CARs, offering them assistance in Information Technology, education, health care and infrastructure and supplying them with tea, garments, drugs and pharmaceuticals.
In return, these republics have been a major source of supply of uranium, non-ferrous metals,isotopes, radioactive chemical elements, oil and petroleum products. And yet, India’s overall trade with the Central Asian Republics has remained at a paltry 500 million dollars, mainly constrained by the lack of direct land connectivity.
However, of late many new factors have entered the equation. The breakthrough in nuclear talks between the big powers and Iran has allowed India a little more manoeuvring space in its dealing with Tehran. India has promptly re-activated its assistance to improving the Chabahar port in eastern Iran which serves as a crucial link between Iran and Afghanistan and further into Central Asia. The port, when fully developed, will give India a crucial sea-land link into Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan. Iran has already constructed a number of smaller roads to the Afghanistan border where it can be linked to the Zaranj-Delaram Highway, constructed by India. The Zaranj-Delaram Highway is connected to the Garland Highway that leads into Central Asia.
Chabahar is not the only port though that will enable India to connect to Central Asia and Eurasia. Bandar Abbas, Iran’s other important port that is likely to emerge as a key link in a major north-south corridor.
At the moment New Delhi cannot match China’s economic clout and its ability to pour in money into smaller countries but by undertaking the proposed connectivity projects more vigorously, it can provide an alternative to the Central Asian Republics in order to lessen their dependence on ‘big brother’ China.
Which brings us to the situation in Afghanistan and India’s diminishing role in Kabul. As long as President Hamid Karzai was in power in Kabul, India was assured of a firm foothold in that country. New Delhi’s 2 billion dollar worth of assistance to Afghanistan for non-security sectors has earned a lot of goodwill but all that benevolence is in danger of being lost after President Abdul Ghani has taken over the reins of power.
Decidedly cold towards India and friendlier to Pakistan than Karzai, Ghani has introduced an element of uncertainty in the India-Afghanistan relations as well India’s foray into Central Asia since New Delhi was hoping to use Afghanistan as a springboard for its outreach into CARs. Afghanistan is also crucial for the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) gas pipeline. It was bad enough that India-Pakistan relations are fraught, now even Afghanistan may not be India’s friend.
So despite optimism expressed by India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), there is a major question mark over the operationalisation of TAPI gas project in the near future.
So what should India do to remain relevant in Afghanistan and step up its involvement in CAR? Three essential aspects stand out. One, to keep its foothold in Kabul intact, India must work with Washington, Beijing and Moscow to limit the Pakistani Army’s role in Afghanistan. India, China and Russia in fact agreed to back a “broad and inclusive peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan that is Afghan-led and Afghan-owned, as well as to help Afghanistan’s integration into the region through its expanded trade and transport networks and regional connectivity.”
Two, India, must realise that it has–more than Russia and China–a larger stake in Afghanistan simply because any instability in Kabul and the return of Taliban would spell trouble for India’s security environment. China, in the Indian policymakers’ eyes, is using the minor unrest in Xianjiang province as an excuse to remain relevant in any Afghan solution but is unwilling to do much beyond paying lip service while Moscow, it feels, will not like to return to Kabul in any significant role given its past bitter experience in Afghanistan. And three, at the moment Ashraf Ghani may have put all his eggs in the Pakistani basket but he will sooner than later realise that Islamabad’s narrow objective of gaining a ‘strategic depth’ against India in the form of Afghanistan, is not compatible with what Kabul wants, i.e, peace and reconciliation with the Taliban.
In the near and long term, India and to a lesser extent Washington, must do all it can, to help the Afghan people. India’s cultural and civilisational ties with the majority Afghan people are strong and notwithstanding the temporary setback India has suffered in Kabul, it will eventually prevail. India must therefore continue with its development programmes in Afghanistan and think of helping Kabul in capacity building of its human resource as well as that of its armed forces.