Central Asia sees India as a rising power, not in the same league as China but one that cannot be ignored

As negotiations for the withdrawal of international security forces in Afghanistan by 2014 gather pace, India has decided to revive its only overseas military base in Farkhor, Tajikistan. Officials from the Ministry of External Affairs will travel there next month to finalise arrangements, following which Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon is expected to visit India in September.

The revival of the Farkhor airbase and the upgrading of the military hospital on its premises, where former Northern Alliance leader and ‘Lion of Panjshir’ Ahmed Shah Massoud was treated for his fatal injuries from the suicide bomb attack on September 9, 2001 — two days before the September 11 incidents in America — is a crucial link to India’s revamped Connect Central Asia policy unveiled in June at a dialogue forum in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, by Minister of State for External Affairs E. Ahamed.

With India’s risk-averse corporate community unwilling to follow the government’s lead in establishing a firmer footprint in the region since the break-up of the Soviet Union 20 years ago, Delhi has come to the conclusion that it must use its own muscle to project its strategic presence in Central Asia.

Much has already been written about this hydrocarbon-rich region and how China, Russia and U.S.-dominated western consortiums have laid networks of oil-and-gas pipelines to service their own markets. China, especially, has used energy supplies from Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan to fuel its relentless rise as an economic power – but the truth is that none of these benignly authoritarian regimes are complaining.

Kazakhstan has leveraged the sale of its energy resources to become, with a per-capita GDP of $13,000 in purchasing power parity terms, the richest state in all of Central Asia. Astana, a windy city in the Siberian steppe, was transformed into the capital in 1997 by a diktat of its President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and today its skyline is littered with glass-and-gold-domed buildings. Divided by a river — the Ishim — that runs through the town, Astana has a Left Bank and a Right Bank, besides a glass-and-concrete pramid that doubles up as an exhibition space and a concert hall that looks like the Parthenon. Outsiders may wonder at the copycat Disneyland, but the Kazakhs are certainly not complaining.

Mr. Nazarbayev is hardly a latter-day version of Mohammed bin Tughlaq — who whimsically moved his capital from Delhi to the Deccan in the 14th century and then had to move it back — although he completely controls the state apparatus. Mr. Nazarbayev decided, when he came to Delhi for the Republic Day festivities in 2009, that 25 per cent of the Satpayev oil block will be given to OVL. Both China’s CNOOC and U.S.’ Chevron already had their share of Kazakh energy spoils and Mr. Nazarbayev wanted to expand options. (His wife is also believed to have been a follower of the Sathya Sai Baba, thereby adding to the India connection.)

That’s the general perception of India in Central Asia — that it is a rising regional power, not quite in the league of China but interesting to behold because of its enormous market, its incredible culture, its singular capacity to innovate and even its fractious democracy. India is not a priority, but it cannot be ignored.

Interestingly enough, a mirror-perception about Central Asia persists among the Indian elite. The land of Babur (Uzbekistan) and Bairam Khan (Turkmenistan) and Mirza Hiadar Dughlati (Kazakhstan) and Bedil (Tajikistan) is still cloaked in the mist of history and its combined 65 million population has largely been ignored. Although most Central Asian capitals are a couple of hours away from Delhi by air, the lack of connectivity by rail or road means that serious business interest is almost absent.

So China-Central Asia trade tips the scales at $29 billion and U.S.-Central Asia trade touches $26 billion while India-Central Asia trade stands at only $500 million (excluding investment in the Satpayev oil block and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India, or TAPI, gas pipeline, which will take five years to fructify). That’s why India must do things differently if it has to return to Central Asia.

Alongside the revival of the Farkhor airbase in Tajikistan and the upgrading of the defence relationship with Dushanbe, private hospital chains like Max are being persuaded to set up trauma centres — if not hospitals — in key cities all over the region. Plans are afoot to start an India-Central Asia university in Bishkek. An e-information technology network is on the cards, just like in key countries in Africa. Meanwhile, talks are on with a Russian channel with a treasure trove of Hindi films, perfectly dubbed into Russian, to expand broadcast all over Central Asia. From Raj Kapoor to Shahrukh Khan, Bollywood is still the key to open hearts and minds in Central Asia.

With the western withdrawal from Afghanistan on the cards, the Central Asian pot will boil further. India lost the opportunity to drive deep into the region when the Soviet Union collapsed 20 years, but it’s now getting a second chance.

Hopefully Delhi won’t mess it up again.

(Jyoti Malhotra is a Delhi-based journalist and recently visited Kazakhstan as a guest of its government.)

This copy has been corrected for a typographical error.

More In: Comment | Opinion