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India plays the great game of influence over central Asia

India and central Asia are close in every way, except geography.

india Updated: Jul 06, 2015 07:55 IST
HT Corresondent
HT Corresondent
Hindustan Times
Prime-Minister-Narendra-Modi-during-the-launch-of-DD-Kisan-Channel-at-a-ceremony-at-Vigyan-Bhawan-in-New-Delhi-in-May-2015--Sanjeev-Verma-HT-File-Photo( )

India and central Asia are close in every way, except geography. With Pakistan and China controlling all land access to central Asia, India’s relations with the countries of this region is a shadow of other Asian powers.

Indian trade with the “Five Stans” is less than $1 billion a year. China’s trade is nearly 50 times that.

New Delhi has long sought to set up an alternative route through the Iranian port of Chhabar and the building of a North-South Corridor that would run to Afghanistan and eventually also connect to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Difficulties of internal Iranian politics and UN sanctions on Iran have meant the corridor has moved slowly. India’s engagement with central Asia has also been held hostage.

With the sanctions likely to be lifted, Iran nervous about a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan, and Tehran reeling from the financial hit of record low oil and gas prices, a window has opened for New Delhi. It has a chance to play the Great Game — Rudyard Kipling’s name for the 18th century Anglo-Russian struggle for influence over Central Asia. A marginal player so far, now India can consider being a tier two external player, if it gets its act together.

PM Modi’s tour will position India as an alternative to the other, better-connected central Asian neighbours. India will offer tele-medicine and education. It will play up its soft power, from Buddhism to yoga. And it will remind a central Asia starting to feel the heat of resurgent Islamic terror of India’s secular and security credentials.

Some of these countries have not seen an Indian leader in 20 years. The immediate impact will be Modi just showing up. But if the Iranian corridor comes through, Indian leaves a soft footprint, and some new economic and military cooperation can be finalised, India could look at a Central Asia presence going beyond the rhetorical.