Under Prime Minister Modi, India is set on strengthening a floundering economy and developing a robust foreign policy. With Russia and China staking claims to Central Asia in their own way, India is keen to fulfill its voracious appetite for energy. Although India may be disadvantaged geographically, the country has an opportunity to exploit something that both China and Russia lack – the ability to charm through cultural links, aid and genuine trust.
Connecting the Dots
India’s history with Central Asia goes back to 1526 when a defeated Babur in exile set forth from Kabul to India to lay the foundations for the great Mughal Empire that lasted for over 300 years. Fast-forward to the 21st century and India’s Connect Central Asia policy aims build vital connections politically and culturally that will translate into a broad-based commercial relationship. Modi’s visit to Tajikistan in September may also see India become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a counterbalance to NATO. Permanent members of the SCO currently include Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Although a large recipient of foreign aid itself, India is also a developing aid donor for neighboring countries. Providing aid garners respect and legitimacy and a have versus have-not reputation in the eyes of the international community. Although the majority of aid has stayed within regional confines, over the last few years Africa has been a notable recipient of Indian aid providing benefit in the form relationships with African oil producing countries. This investment has paid dividends as Africa accounted for 16 percent, and second largest source of crude oil for India in 2013.
Winning the Graveyard of empires
Whether the U.S. ever decides to pull out of Afghanistan, one thing remains certain – no occupying power has ever been able to exert control over Afghanistan through military force. Referred to as “The Graveyard of Empires,” Afghanistan is also the gateway to Central Asia, and a highly strategic asset. While Pakistan’s strategy of maintaining influence in Afghanistan through Taliban mercenaries has made more enemies than friends, India understands that winning Afghanistan means winning the hearts and minds of Afghanis themselves.
As a result, India has invested more than $2 billion in Afghan infrastructure, including highways and hospitals and rural electricity projects. India is also helping the Afghan government rebuild its law enforcement, judiciary and diplomatic services. Reconstruction projects aside, being able to export culture is a sign of true soft power and Bollywood is no exception. The popularity of Indian cinema in Afghanistan is undeniable and is so pervasive that according to a 2007 Wikileaks cable, the U.S. asked India to send its Bollywood stars to Afghanistan to “help bring attention to social issues.”
The Chabahar Advantage
The Modi government is looking to accelerate the construction of the Chabahar port in Iran that the two countries agreed to in 2003. The port would promote greater ties between Iran and India with planned connections to Afghanistan and Central Asia by both road and railway. Turning Chahabar into a reality will allow India to overcome its geographical disadvantage and compete directly with the China/Pakistan Gwadar port designed to turn Pakistan into a regional hub and provide China with access to the Persian Gulf.
Chabahar might have a slight advantage given that Gwadar is based in volatile Pakistani Baluchistan. With the West now warming up to Iran, India’s $300 million investment might have a greater possibility of paying off now than it did in the past. This in combination with an Iran-Oman-India gas pipeline that could bring 31 cubic meters of gas to India per day, India could potentially pose a threat to Chinese interests in the region.
India is not only a mere contestant of the New Great Game; it is starting to play by its own rules.