It has been the long, time-honored tradition of our country to invite a foreign dignitary as the chief guest during the annual Republic Day.
Next year, that honor has been accorded to five, not one, dignitaries: – the heads of state of the Central Asian countries which include Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
However, this goes deeper than merely extending a courtesy to fellow Asian countries. The geopolitical realities of the region are shifting fast and India is scrambling to cement its place as an Asian giant before the rivals get there. In another words, Central Asia is ripe territory waiting to be utilized properly.
All the five aforementioned states were once a part of the mighty Soviet Union, splitting away only after its fall in 1991. Out of these only Kazakhstan displays considerable economic growth and an open middle-income society.
Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have grave times ahead, tottering on the verge of complete failure. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan possess immense hoards of natural resources but are wary of foreign relations and grappling with a variety of internal issues.
They all are relatively young and thus coupled with the wealth of natural resources, it makes them the prime target for countries like America and China. Take a look at the abundance of minerals and metals in Kazakhstan alone; it contains all the minerals on Mendeleev’s table including coal, iron, gold, molybdenum etc in vast quantities.
It is only natural that India, armed with a resurgent foreign policy and willingness to expand its global footprint to more than a few countries laying on the immediate periphery, should express an interest in Central Asia.
Our relationship is nothing new. Back when the Silk Road existed and conducted more than half the trade in this side of the neighborhood, India had relations with all the kingdoms in Central Asia.
Not just silk, spices and textiles but also ideas and philosophies traveled along the route. Buddha himself walked from India to Xinjiang through the region which is now Central Asia, then a smattering of many tribes and clans.
The Mughal warlord Babar also came to India from Ferghana, which is in modern day Uzbekistan. Even today they all have embassies and robust trade relations with India, but with changing scenarios it has now become imperative to develop closer ties.
Not to mention make some crucial moves to ensure our own dominance. Keeping a close eye on the surge of radical Islamist movements is very important especially in this time of unrest.
Now that Afghanistan has been overrun and overwhelmed by the dreaded Taliban, there is an increased risk of the drug trade and rise in extremism in countries like Uzbekistan, where the Ferghana Valley is already a hotbed of radical activities.
If the Taliban’s brand of extremism spills over to Central Asia it will take no time to spread to India like cancer and affect our own political stability. As it is, we already have two neighboring countries who spare no expense in financing and fostering terrorism inside India.
As of now bilateral relations with the five Central Asian countries are stable but not fully exploited. Pakistan does not allow much transportation through its territory especially when it comes to Afghanistan, let alone Central Asia beyond it.
India is using soft power to cultivate a positive image in the countries through a combination of yoga, Bollywood, literature, cultural fests and occasional hosting of conferences to discuss the future of the east.
India regularly and frequently arranges cultural events in these countries and also provides scholarships for study in India of these disciplines by young men and women of these countries.
As alternate trade routes are explored, we will have to seize the opportunity and get to the abundant natural resources first, before the Dragon or the Eagle sink their tenacious claws into them.