Monday, May 01, 2006

Letter from India: The Great Game is alive and in a new guise

01 May 2006
Mahendra Ved

THE fall of absolute monarchy in Nepal, despite its somewhat emotional context of being the world’s only Hindu kingdom, could make India look north to redefine its geostrategic goals.

On the one hand, it means advancement of democracy as part of the changes in the region, be it Afghanistan or the Central Asian republics. One is not necessarily buying wholesale the Western (read American) concept of what should constitute democracy. But a change from party-less or single-party democracies seems possible in the not-too- distant future, in Myanmar or even Tibet and China.

Poll drums are being heard from Bangladesh, the battle- ground for two formidable women politicians, each with a political legacy to defend. No matter who wins, India would be happy if it stabilises a volatile border from where it receives job-seeking migrants who stay on. India is large and relatively better off. But it cannot have an unrestricted inflow of people who change its demography and cause socioeconomic upheavals.

Many Indians are happy that President George W. Bush praised Indian democracy, while reminding Pakistan that it was time it had one. But that does not ease the task of handling the complexities of Indo-Pakistani relations.

That Bush and, more than him, his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, prefer multi-party, multi-ethnic, multi- linguistic democracies like India, Indonesia and Malaysia has become clear to the Indian intelligentsia.

The change in Nepal is being seen in that larger context, with the hope that, however chaotic, Nepalese democracy would prevent the Himalayan nation from sliding into a failed state. As the largest country in South Asia, India cannot afford failed or failing states on its borders.

The strategic aspect of the painful change in Nepal, still under way, may take a while to unfold. Until then, New Delhi could look beyond the Himalayas where it perceives a major answer to its quest for energy security lies.

That is where the new "Great Game" is unfolding. Its name is energy. It explains the recent visit of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Uzbekistan.

India views Central Asia as its "extended neighbourhood" because of the strong cultural links. After decades of dealing with the region via Moscow, it is turning its gaze on each of these landlocked nations where, to thwart Russian preponderance, China is already in and, since 9/11, the US.

The complexity is exemplified by the potshots that Uzbek President Islam Karimov, a dedicated US ally for five years, chose to take at the Bush administration and Nato during the Indian visit. He noted that the powerful West had failed to curb the spiralling production of narcotics in Afghanistan, let alone catch Osama bin Laden and Taliban supremo Mullah Omar.

But India needs Central Asian gas and will try its best to work on the Turkmenistan- Afghanistan-Pakistan pipe- line, even if it means defying the US and collaborating with China.

While the US is crying "democracy" in Uzbekistan, after it was asked to quit the military base at Khanabad, India has stepped in with offers of IT, telecom and other know- how, ready to prospect for oil and minerals, education, farm research, and so on.

A memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed between India and Uzbekistan for the establishment of an Uzbekistan-India Entrepre- neurship Centre in the Uzbek capital, which will train young entrepreneurs and lead to extra employment.

However, the Indian reach across the Himalayas is limited by the fact that not enough is done on the ground. After the initial enthusiasm shown when Central Asia fell free of Moscow, little has been done to build on the old relationships and the nostalgia of the Raj Kapoor cinema.

For one, officials admit that India does not have "deep pockets" — in other words, it is not ready and equipped to play a global part. Also, India’s airlines, investors and traders have not learnt from the success of L.N. Mittal with his steel plant in Kazakhstan. There is still an unexplained fear of the "back of beyond".

On the other hand, there is renewed talk of an India-China-Russia axis, if for little else, for mutual energy security. But India expects to play only a minor role since it views China as a competitor in the race for oil and gas.

For India, there is no single dimension to be tackled in isolation. As an observer on the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO), the grouping of Russia, China and four of the Central Asian republics — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyztan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — India would not be directly participating in military exercises.

But India does feel the need to counter the growing Chinese military presence in Myanmar at one end of the South Asian spectrum, and at Gwadar, the Chinese-built naval base in Baluchistan at the other. Indian security experts are still groping for an answer, though.

But it is not all military. Sherthang is a little village in Sikkim in the Himalayas, where trials have begun to resume border trade between India and China, snapped after the 1962 conflict, via the Nathu La pass.

Starting this month, perhaps, trade will begin. Chinese silk, yak tails and raw wool are likely to hit Indian markets from this village in exchange for Indian farm products, textiles, watches, shoes, canned food, tobacco, rice and dried fruit. One is reminded of the saying, "Money makes the mare go".



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