The decision to invite the heads of Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan has been long in coming. Better late than never

Come January, the following five tongue-twisters for names will become important to remember as these leaders from Central Asia fly into Delhi to take the salute on India’s 72nd Republic Day celebrations: Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan, Sadyr Japarov of Kyrgyzstan, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov of Turkmenistan, and Shavkat Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan.

The reconnection of India with its “near abroad” is fascinating and behoves the question: Why? Some old-timers will remember that in late 1991, when the Soviet Union disintegrated and its 15 provinces became independent nations, Uzbekistan’s most powerful leader at the time, Ismail Karimov, was visiting Delhi. Extremely worried officials in the Ministry of External Affairs wondered what to do with the man as all hell was breaking loose in Moscow and the world was changing as were power equations in the new Russia as well as Central Asia.

The short answer was that Karimov needed to be moved out of Delhi for protocol reasons as then prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao quickly thought on his feet about how to address him and what to say: Was he still general secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan, or was he the new President? In any case, Karimov was sent to Agra and the most lavish hospitality bestowed on him as he visited the Taj Mahal and other monuments that a variety of Mughal emperors had built since Babur, the first Mughal, came to Hindustan from the Ferghana Valley in Uzbekistan in 1526. Indian officials hoped Karimov would accept the delay in meeting the PM as he warmed to the historical connection.

Karimov did and India invigorated its Central Asian memory. Narasimha Rao visited Tashkent and Kazakhstan’s Almaty (the swish new capital, Astana, complete with glittering mosques and offices and schools and hotels would be built on the flat, barren northern steppes some years later, notwithstanding temperatures plunging to -50 degrees Celsius in the winter) in 1993; in neighbouring Afghanistan, President Mohammad Najibullah’s support was withering as the Soviet Union collapsed and military aid dwindled.

Najibullah resigned in mid-1992, around the time the Pakistani military establishment was encouraging its religious seminaries to create an extremist Islamist movement called the Taliban, which would ultimately take Kabul in 1996, drag Najibullah from the UN compound in which he had taken refuge, and hang him from the nearest lamp post.

With the Taliban in charge of Kabul, Pakistan was the power behind the throne; India’s influence in the region waned and competing interests elsewhere in the world became more important. In the wake of the 1998 nuclear tests, attention was divided between the big powers and the neighbourhood. Central Asia receded from India’s foreign policy consciousness, even as parts of it (Kazakhstan) discovered oil and became fabulously wealthy and began to engage with the rest of the world.

First US, Then China

The first to move in were the very rich US oil companies. But as China grew and its economy raced ahead, it leveraged its newfound wealth and power to build roads and railway lines across Central Asia. Trains carried everything from minerals and oil, machinery and household goods on this new silk route, up and down, back and forth.

Chinese-built railway tracks have since reached the Uzbek-Afghan border. Chinese officials are now looking at ways and means to connect the Uzbek-Afghan border town of Hairatan with Peshawar, which is a key stepping-stone on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that follows the Karakoram Highway and gradually wends its way across Pakistan to the Chinese-built Gwadar Port on the Arabian Sea.

As India lost interest, China made huge strides across Central Asia. Back in Moscow, Vladimir Putin consolidated his power in the Kremlin and moved to recreate Russia’s influence in a region that Russians called the “near abroad” – the five nations of Central Asia that stretched from the Pamir mountains to the Aral Sea. China and Russia became the key powers in the region, while the US exercised its muscle, never letting anyone forget that it was a big power and could not be ignored.

How the world has changed in 30 years and how some things have remained the same. As the Taliban once again establishes its presence in Kabul and Russia and China reassert themselves across Afghanistan and Central Asia, the choices in front of Delhi are stark.

How should it return to the region? Who should it ally with – its old friend Russia or its newer partner, the US? And what kind of a relationship should it have with China, whose troops have been staring down Indian soldiers for the last year and a half on the Ladakh border?

What is not up for argument anymore is the need to dust off years of neglect and disinterest and get back front and centre to Central Asia’s consciousness. The decision to invite the heads of these five independent nations, some of whom have long borders with Afghanistan, has been long in coming. Der aye, durust aye. Better late than never.

India Makes A Good Start

Some would say that the decision to re-engage with Central Asia is a direct consequence of the concern that India may again be at risk of being out-manoeuvred in Afghanistan, because the Pakistan military establishment is once again in the ascendant in Kabul.

But the truth is that 2021 is not 1996 and, in fact, the Taliban themselves want to engage with India today. How India, a much bigger power since 1996, chooses to engage Afghanistan is also a function of how the Taliban move towards becoming a more egalitarian nation while Delhi wonders how to remain influential in a country in which it has invested significant resources over the past 20 years.

But there is a second, significant reason why India is choosing to engage with Central Asia today – and this is to send China the message that while Delhi has been absent here these past few decades, it is no longer willing to be taken for granted. That it is returning to a region that has for centuries been a part of India’s consciousness.

This is where Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reinvigorated relationship with the Russian President comes into play. Putin knows the Chinese have been dominating this space since the Soviet Union broke up – significantly, he is not averse to engaging with a third power, like India, that seeks to claw back influence. It may be in Putin’s interest to also diminish China’s power in the region.

So as these presidents and prime ministers with tongue-twisters for names fly into Delhi to take the Republic Day salute on 26 January on the revamped Central Vista, each of them knows that the great old game is taking on a new form. The Chinese are hardly going to give in; Pakistan knows that it is the shortest gateway to the ocean and is seeking to increase its heft via its alliance with Beijing; while the US is circling around, waiting for the chance to return in the aftermath of its abysmal exit from Afghanistan.

Central Asia is back on the world map. India wants to know it again. It’s a good start.