Prime Minister Narender Modi visited the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan from July 6 to 13. In between, he also attended the BRICS summit meeting at Ufa in Russia.
The last Indian prime minister who visited all these places at one time was Jawaharlal Nehru, who visited them sixty years ago in 1955 when they were all republics of the Soviet Union. The renewed interest in these now independent countries has much to do with the strategic interests of the Indian bourgeoisie.
These countries are home to very rich energy resources, which the Indian bourgeoisie, as also the Chinese and US bourgeoisie, are eyeing. It is also a region which China has made strong inroads into in the last few years, through its massive investments in infrastructure including road and railways. This region forms a crucial part of China’s new “Silk Road Economic Belt” initiative. The Indian bourgeoisie harbours deep suspicions about this ambitious Chinese program to develop connectivity and infrastructure across the length and breadth of Eurasia, and would like to counter it.
A third reason why the region is increasingly important for the Indian state is its proximity geographically and culturally to Afghanistan, which has been and remains a center of big power contention. The Indian state considers Afghanistan as part of its “rightful” sphere of influence, as Pakistan does too. There is fierce contention between India and Pakistan with respect to influence over Afghanistan. Unacknowledged publicly, India has long been a keen actor – both covertly and overtly -- in Afghanistan over many decades. It wants to preserve and expand its influence in that country, at the cost of Pakistan.
Despite ancient trading and cultural links with this region, present-day India has not maintained its ties with Central Asia. Trade volumes between India and this region are very small, and India has not been nearly as successful as China in getting access to the oil, gas and uranium reserves it possesses. One reason is the difficult mountainous terrain that lies in between India and this region, and another is that land transport routes lie through Pakistan and Afghanistan. To get around this problem, the Indian state has in recent times launched a plan to develop the Iranian port of Chabahar. The plan is to use the sea route from India’s west coast to Chabahar, and a land route from there via Russia and Azerbaijan to Central Asia, thereby bypassing Pakistan and Afghanistan, in order to transport commodities between Central Asia and India. India was going slow on this plan for fear of being affected by the US sanctions against Iran; but now that these sanctions will be lifted in the wake of the nuclear deal signed between Iran and the US and other powers, the Indian bourgeoisie hopes to push ahead with it.
At the same time, moves are also afoot to use the Pakistan-Afghanistan corridor to Central Asia. While he was in Turkmenistan, which has huge natural gas reserves, Modi discussed how to advance the long-delayed TAPI pipeline project, intended to supply gas from Turkmenistan to India via Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Kazakhstan, which holds the world’s largest reserves of uranium, Modi signed an agreement for 5000 tonnes of uranium to be supplied to Indian nuclear reactors over the next four years. He also pushed for additional allocation of oil exploration blocks in Kazakhstan for ONGC Videsh, although no agreement was signed to that effect. India also signed a defence cooperation agreement with Kazakhstan during Modi’s visit. A similar defence cooperation agreement was also signed with Kyrgyzstan during this visit.
Bolstering defense and strategic relations with these countries is also critical for the Indian state because of the ongoing transitions in Afghanistan.
After the withdrawal of Soviet occupation troops from Afghanistan in the late eighties, India and Pakistan backed rival factions in the civil war that raged in that country. While Pakistan backed the Taliban, India funded, trained and assisted the Northern Alliance. Iran and Russia also backed the Northern Alliance. The US imperialists advanced their interests by funding and arming all the groups. From 1995 to 2001, when the Taliban controlled Kabul and much of southern Afghanistan, Pakistan dominated the country’s economy and India even shut its embassy. The US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, and the overthrow of the Taliban regime, provided the Indian state with the opening to advance its interests in Afghanistan. With the new Afghan government of Ashraf Ghani initiating talks with the Taliban despite India’s opposition, the Indian bourgeoisie fears that Pakistan will once again have an upper hand over India in Afghanistan. Reviving ties with the Central Asian republics is important for India to rebuild old channels it has since neglected. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan were the nations through which India routed its military aid to its favourite factions in the civil war in Afghanistan.
The Modi government’s push into Central Asia indicates that the Indian state is striving to expand its footprint in this region, which has traditionally been under the influence of Russia and China and also, after the end of the Cold War, the US. Historically, this has been a region of acute big power contention, and now India too is being drawn more deeply into the competition and rivalry in this part of the world.