India’s Central Asia Outreach Is Incomplete Without Pak & Afghanistan
The key takeaway from a recent summit is that India doesn't intend to normalise ties with Pakistan & Afghanistan.
Subhash Chandra Bose, or Netaji, had to wait a long time before Adolf Hitler met him in Rastenburg in 1942. He asked Hitler to help India throw out the British. But Hitler shot down the proposal. Pointing at the map with a cane, Hitler said India was too far away for Germany to send its armoured troops. “But if I reach Moscow, it will be easy for me to rescue India.”
Distance is critical not only for waging war but also for striking friendships across borders. That’s why the Narendra Modi government’s outreach to Central Asian Republics (CARs) – the flagship of our current diplomatic overdrive – begs the question: are we going to leapfrog over Pakistan and Afghanistan to party in CARs?
Pak & Afghanistan Are Stumbling Blocks On the Road to CARs
My biggest takeaway from the first India-Central Asia Virtual Summit on 27 January is that New Delhi has no intentions of normalising relations with Pakistan and Afghanistan – the stumbling blocks on the road to CARs. This stance puts a big question mark over the whole outreach.
Befriending Pakistan doesn’t sit well with the Hindutva mantra of the BJP-RSS. Its pathological hatred for Pakistan and Afghanistan is not in the national interest – but it fuels Hindu consolidation for electoral gains. Hence, the Modi government has made the Hindu Right’s agenda the nation’s agenda.
India couldn’t have been blunter than in ignoring Turkmenistan President, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, plea to fast track the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline (TAPI) project at the Summit. India did not endorse it as it did many other suggestions. The Delhi Declaration records Berdimuhamedov’s interest in TAPI and our disinterest conveyed through a deafening silence.
Started in 2015, someone once described TAPI as “a candle flickering in the wind”. There was a glimmer of hope that Pakistan and India would bury their differences for the economic gains of getting cheap energy. But TAPI got immediately stuck due to the volatility in Afghanistan, where a civil war was underway. But the Taliban have now promised to restart work on the pipeline in September 2022.
Despite that, TAPI is still a prisoner of India-Pakistani hostility, which is showing no signs of abating.
New Delhi was unresponsive to President Berdimuhamedov as it has no intentions to break the diplomatic deadlock with Islamabad through peace talks.
The Tale of TAPI
The Modi government’s refusal to engage with Islamabad will firstly restrict TAPI to Pakistan, badly hitting its financial viability as India is the biggest market of Turkmenistan’s gas. The pipeline has been designed to deliver 33 billion cubic metres of Turkmenistan’s gas to India. Of the total length of about 1,840 kilometres, some 1,600 kilometres of pipe will be laid in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the pipeline terminating at Fazilka in India.
Secondly, India’s hardline position on TAPI will derail New Delhi’s connectivity dreams with Central Asia through Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Thirdly, it will vitiate the geostrategic atmosphere in South Asia dominated by nuclear-armed neighbours, Pakistan and India. Pakistan is already countering Indian hostility by aiding and abetting China – which India considers its key enemy – to further its interests in South Asia, which was once considered India’s zone of influence. And by hollowing out SAARC, New Delhi is fuelling the anti-India China-Pakistan axis.
There is only one reason for New Delhi’s lack of enthusiasm for TAPI – its conviction that Afghanistan and Pakistan are not going to cooperate, and without their collaboration, the pipeline can’t reach India. They would, of course, cooperate if India normalises relations with them, but India has no such plans.
Why This Works Against India
India’s refusal to improve relations with Pakistan goes against the core of India’s energy policy, which has been woven into our foreign and security policies. On the one hand, New Delhi claims that it is wooing Central Asian countries for the sake of energy, along with a few other goals like containment of terrorism in Afghanistan. But the Modi government’s refusal to mend fences with Pakistan conveys the impression that sustaining enmity and hostility with Pakistan is more important than meeting its energy requirements. Seemingly, India is ready to sacrifice its quest for land connectivity with Central Asian nations in order to shun Pakistan.
Soon after becoming the Prime Minister and inviting Nawaz Sharif to his swearing-in ceremony, Modi thought that he could sweet-talk Islamabad into signing the SAARC draft Motor Vehicle Agreement and the SAARC Regional Railways Agreement to access Pakistani territories for transit purposes. But Pakistan did not bite the bait at the 2014 SAARC Summit, citing unfinished “procedural processes”.
India has grand strategies that have been debilitated and boxed in by Pakistan. There is no other instance in the world of such denial of connectivity by any nation without being officially at war.
New Delhi says that Pakistani hostility is against the canons of international law. But what has the Modi government done to break the impasse?
After a lot of haggling, Pakistan allowed India to send 5,000 metric tonnes of wheat to Afghanistan through its territory as a special case. But India is sitting tight after the go-ahead. Moeen Yusuf, Pakistan’s National Security Advisor, says that the Indian offer to send food aid through Pakistan was nothing but a ‘stunt’. He says that New Delhi had assumed that Pakistan will not grant permission, which would show India in good light and Pakistan in poor light. But despite the Pakistani permission now, there are no signs of any preparations to send the food aid.
India's Taliban Policy Is an Enigma
India’s Taliban policy, too, seems to be an enigma wrapped in a puzzle. After broadcasting its grave concern for Afghanistan at every forum, including the India-Central Asia Summit, the Budget has allocated Ministry of External Affairs only Rs 200 crore to spend on Afghanistan-related projects. But Myanmar has been allotted Rs 600 crore, three times more. Last year, when the India-friendly Ashraf Ghani government was in power, we had allocated Rs 348 crore. Bhutan, as usual, has got the highest allocation of Rs 2,262 crore. Taliban-ruled Afghanistan is clearly not a priority for India.
India’s insistence on an “inclusive” government in Kabul as a precondition for greater engagement is ironic. Firstly, the Taliban have captured power through a military victory success and not by democratic elections. And second, how inclusive is the Modi government itself? It has only one minister from the Muslim community, which accounts for 12 percent of the population.
(SNM Abdi is a distinguished journalist and ex-Deputy Editor of Outlook. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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