A little noticed but major Indian
policy initiative was unveiled in distant Bishkek, the capital of
Kyrgyzstan, last week.
Indian Minister of State for External Affairs E Ahamed announced a
new policy initiative for the Central Asian Region (CAR)
appropriately packaged as 'Connect Central Asia'. He was
inaugurating the first India-Central Asia Dialogue under the joint
aegis of the Indian Council for World Affairs (ICWA) and the World
Diplomatic Academy, Bishkek.
Just as India's 'Look East Policy' formulated during Prime
Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao's tenure paved the way for a deeper
engagement with Southeast Asia and East Asia with attendant
strategic implications, it may be averred that the 'Connect
Central Asia' policy has the potential to be a game-changer
regarding Delhi's profile in the central heartland of Asia.
This initiative is commendable and is illustrative of the manner
in which India's foreign ministry and a dynamic Indian ambassador
in a remote capital can put in place strategically significant
policies. While the final outcome will be dependent on Delhi's
ability to translate word into deed, the scope of this 'Connect'
initiative is innovative and plays to India's traditional
Outlining the policy, Minister Ahmed noted: "India is now looking
intently at the region through the framework of its 'Connect
Central Asia' policy, which is based on pro-active political,
economic and people-to-people engagement with Central Asian
countries, individually and collectively."
This has been further disaggregated into a 12-point formula which
includes: building on strong political relations through the
exchange of high level visits; strengthening India's strategic and
security cooperation with Central Asian countries, wherein the
focus will be military training, joint research, counter-terrorism
coordination and close consultations on Afghanistan; stepping up
multilateral engagement with Central Asian partners using the
synergy of joint efforts through existing fora like the Shanghai
Cooperation Organisastion (SCO), Eurasian Economic Community (EEC)
and the Custom Union; harnessing Central Asia's energy,
agriculture and natural resource potential; and enhancing medical
and pharmaceutical engagement through greater investment and joint
production in this sector.
Furthermore, higher education including setting up of a Central
Asian University in Bishkek that could evolve as a centre of
excellence to impart world class education in areas like IT,
management, philosophy and languages; setting up a Central Asian
e-network with its hub in India to deliver tele-education and tele-medicine
connectivity, linking all the five Central Asian states; and
showcasing India's capability in the construction sector to build
world class structures at competitive rates, since Central Asian
countries, especially Kazakhstan, have almost limitless reserves
of iron ore and coal as well as abundant cheap electricity. India
can help set up several medium size steel rolling mills.
Poor transport links to the CAR from India are a major constraint.
Hence increasing land connectivity, through the reactivated
International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC); creating a
viable banking infrastructure in the region (whose absence remains
a major barrier to trade and investment) wherein Indian banks can
expand their presence if they see a favourable policy environment;
jointly working to improve air connectivity between India and CAR
countries, given that India is one of the biggest markets for
outbound travellers estimated at $21 billion in 2011 and
encouraging Indian tourists to visit Central Asia as attractive
holiday destinations; exploring the potential for the Indian film
industry; and finally building on the people-to-people contact
which will remain the most vital linkages to sustain deeper
India-Central Asia engagement.
Kyrgyzstan, while being amongst the smallest of the CAR states
with a population of under six million people, has one unique
feature. It is the first CAR state to move tentatively towards
democracy and has the distinction of electing the first woman
president in the region, Madame Roza Otunbayeva, after ethnic
clashes led to the removal of the previous regime.
Holding charge as caretaker president from April 2010 till
December 2011, Madame Roza oversaw the first parliamentary
elections. Kyrgyzstan has emerged as a role model for the smooth
transition of power in a region that is better known for
authoritarian regimes that have lasted decades.
China, Russia and the US are engaged in a complex contestation to
establish their presence in Central Asia. The post-2014 Afghan
scenario is to have significant implications for India. Thus it is
timely that Delhi has put in place a long-term policy with a
comprehensive agenda to engage with Central Asian states.
Central Asia represents the confluence where energy, water and
food will emerge as determinants of the new 'Great Game'. India
has to position itself innovatively - and this hopefully is what
'Connect Central Asia' will enable.
(C. Uday Bhaskar is a strategic analyst who was
invited to Bishkek Dialogue. He can be contacted at email@example.com)