Few parts of the world excite nearly romantic longing among India's strategic community as much as Central Asia. This is a part of the world that has centuries of cultural and political links with India and whose energy and mineral resources, at least, are a perfect match for India's emerging appetite for the same. All of this sounds good in vacuous speeches and sweeping academic papers. But the reality of the 21st century political map is that there are, in truth, few parts of the world so poorly connected to India as Central Asia.
The Silk Route was one of the great cultural exchange routes of history and made fables out of cities like Bukhara and Samarkand. But it depended on an understanding among the various states through which it passed that this was a matter of mutual benefit. To take the same route today would mean crossing some of the most impermeable borders and going through some of the most xenophobic states in the world. This is why the memory of India's great Central Asian connection is largely irrelevant in the contemporary world. There is a strong case for India retaining a presence and being at least a minor player in Central Asia. But it needs to be done through a more imaginative and innovative means than is presently being considered. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's recent visit to Kazakhstan, geographically the largest and by far the wealthiest of the Central Asian states, has provided some pointers of how this can be done. Kazakhstan has enormous mineral resources but the means to transport bulk commodities to the Indian Ocean littoral are few and expensive. Iran is the obvious land conduit but Tehran's ability to convert agreements into reality, even as simple a thing as a transport corridor, is worse than India's. It says something that the trade route via China and the Pacific Ocean is a less expensive route for India's Central Asian trade.
What India's new Central Asian policy should be focusing on is trade that is viable by air and investment that does not require physical transfers back to India. This also fits in nicely with Central Asian interest in value-adding to their commodity exports. Processing normally means higher weight-to-value ratios and thus makes airfreight more viable. Such policies may mean an end, at least temporarily, to dreams of oil and gas pipelines and a resurrection of the Silk Route. But this reflects ground reality and should be the basis of a genuine hard-nosed Central Asian policy by India.