Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be hosting the first meeting of the India-Central Asia Summit on January 27, with the participation of the presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The summit, a virtual one, is being held at a critical juncture when tensions between the West and Russia and the United States (US) and China are rising. Delhi too has faced geopolitical setbacks: Border tensions with China and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

The forthcoming summit is the culmination of an idea that germinated in 2012 when India’s “Connect Central Asia” policy was launched in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. It was followed by the start of the India-Central Asia Dialogue, a foreign minister-level meeting. The third edition of the dialogue was held in New Delhi in December 2021.

The India-Central Asia Summit also follows President Vladimir Putin’s December visit to India, which may have allowed Delhi to push Russia to moderately balance China in Eurasia and to contain the threats from Afghanistan. The recent unrest in Kazakhstan also showed that “new actors” are vying for influence in the region though their motives are still obscure.

Analysts estimate that 8,000 ISIS and Takfiri extremists are waiting in north Afghanistan to infiltrate energy-rich Kazakhstan. However, this threat has raised Russia’s role as the main security provider to the region. This is a setback for China, the US, and the Islamic zealots. But for now, Putin’s action has ensured that the region remains out of bounds for jihadis and “coloured” revolutionaries.

India has has always maintained excellent diplomatic ties with all the five Central Asian states; Indian PMs including Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015, have visited them. Yet, India’s trade with them has been paltry at $1.4 billion in 2019.

In 2017, India joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to engage with the region. But SCO is only a sluice gate to regulate the Russian and Chinese subliminal rivalry to prevent either power from dominating the region. Moscow tends to use SCO for regulating India-China tensions.

The summit is a massive stride for India’s diplomacy. This year marks the 30th anniversary of India’s diplomatic relations with these states. Since the region is a critical lynchpin to India’s security policy, the summit will have a waterfall impact to facilitate India’s multifaceted approach towards the region.

To be effective, Delhi first needs to get its big-picture imagination of the region correct. Central Asia is undoubtedly a zone of India’s civilizational influence. The Ferghana Valley was India’s crossing-point of the Great Silk Road. Buddhism spread to the rest of Asia from here. The Valley still connects India with three countries: Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. These three nations are resurrecting India’s medieval icons as their national figures: Babur in Uzbekistan, Muhammad Haydar Dulati in Kazakhstan, Bairam Khan in Turkmenistan, and Abdul-Qādir Bedil in Tajikistan.

When others engage with the region from the own perspectives --- China from economic (Belt and Road Initiative), Russia from strategic (Collective Security Treaty Organization), Turkey from ethnic (Turkic Council), and the Islamic world from religious (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) --- it would be befitting for India to give a cultural and historical perspective to the region through a summit-level annual meet.

Central Asia carries no specific stance towards any country, with the exception of Russia. While their strategic visions are often opaque, they are wary of China. However, they have strong economic ties with China compared to little or no economic dependency on India. The region’s negative attitude towards Pakistan is waning, either due to the gradual Islamization of the population or perhaps due to Russia’s changed attitude towards Pakistan.

The notion of “Hindustan” in the popular imagination of the people and their traditional fondness for Bollywood could be critical factors in burnishing the relationship. But with generational change, India’s soft power is fading. This needs to be arrested. Apart from commerce, only a value-driven cultural policy can replace the current ill-defined goals of rebuilding India-Central Asia bonds.