Mr Modi’s sojourns in the five CAR, however, is not merely a continuation of his ‘drop-in diplomacy’ drive, which has seen him travel to 20 countries over the last year, carrying the ‘come, invest in India’ message. It has more to do with New Delhi’s eagerness to correct its blurred focus which had so far kept these Central Asian countries on the margins of India’s foreign policy. Successive governments in New Delhi tried to embark on an active engagement with the CAR. But in the absence of a robust diplomatic outreach programme—like the one Mr. Modi has now initiated—the region was largely ignored by a New Delhi more obsessed with its geostrategic interests elsewhere.

While cultural and trade links existed between the subcontinent and Central Asia for hundreds of years, the partition of India in 1947 meant the loss of a direct land corridor to Central Asia. The trade route for Indian exports to the region—passing through Pakistan and Afghanistan—had to be replaced by the much longer sea route to Iran first. This was the main reason for the low bilateral trade levels between India and Central Asia. And with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 came another turning point in New Delhi’s ties with the region, as India became one of the first countries to recognize many of the newly independent CARs. In fact, New Delhi established diplomatic links with all five CARs within a year, and the Indian consulate in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, played a pivotal role in promoting people-to-people contact between the subcontinent and Central Asia.

The subsequent turmoil in Afghanistan saw India joining Russia and Iran to extend political and military support to Kabul to stem the rising Taliban tide. The effort was in vain, though, as the Taliban hordes captured Kabul in 1996, forcing most countries, including India, to close their embassies there. As it turned out, this was a blessing in disguise for India’s nebulous ties with Central Asia, because New Delhi had to seek the CARs’ help in reaching aid supplies to Afghan forces fighting the Taliban. This prompted India to re-evaluate its strategic engagement with the CARs ringing Afghanistan, especially Tajikistan. Nevertheless, these events belie the fact that high level contact between the political leadership of India and the region seldom took place. After Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan hosted the then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in 1995, it was not until 2003 that former premier Atal Behari Vajpayee visited Tajikistan and, three years later, the then premier Manmohan Singh paid a visit to Uzbekistan. In that sense, Mr. Modi’s back-to-back visits to the region must rank as a diplomatic coup of sorts, as both India and the CARs have much to gain from closer engagement.

Besides their shared cultural, economic and political ties, India and the CARs face many common challenges like growing militancy and extremism. This was highlighted during the Modi visits when joint action on countering terrorism featured high on the agenda of bilateral talks. 'We’re facing new security challenges in the region, like the ISIS,” Mirzosharif Jalolov, Tajik ambassador to India said. “There’re groups that pose a threat to all of us in Central Asia.' Besides, it is in the strategic interests of the CARs to have closer links with India if only to step out of the shadows of Chinese and Russian influence creeping over the region. None of the CARs would be comfortable depending overly on Beijing or Moscow. As Mr Jalolov said, “Engaging with India means a more benign geostrategic partnership for economic and political development in Central Asia than China, Pakistan, Iran or Russia.” The Strategic Partnership Agreements that Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan have inked with India reflect this. These pacts seek to forge closer links with New Delhi in areas like defence, telecommunications, information technology, and pharmaceuticals.

From India’s perspective, a closer and deeper engagement with the region is imperative for several reasons. New Delhi’s latest outreach effort echoes the 'Connect Central Asia' policy announced in July 2012, which aims to augment bilateral relations and establish India’s credentials as an important trade partner for CARs. The policy is based on the idea that by integrating CARs with the Indian economic system, Central Asia’s development could be given a fillip. Key aspects of the policy include infrastructure development, initiatives in higher education, agrarian assistance, the use of India's IT knowledge base, and closer military ties. India’s new initiatives for bilateral cooperation with the CARs are based on several geo-strategic imperatives. Energy security, for instance, ranks as a key driver for New Delhi’s renewed engagement with Central Asia—a region rich in natural resources like hydrocarbons and uranium that India badly needs for its increasing energy needs as its $ 2 trillion economy grows at a steady clip.

Then there is the issue of connectivity, or rather the lack of it, which is probably the biggest hurdle in India’s way for increasing trade with the CAR states. During Mr. Modi’s visit, New Delhi pitched enthusiastically for attracting more members to the proposed North South Transport Corridor, which straddles Iran, Central Asia and Eurasia. The corridor considerably reduces the time taken to carry goods between India and the CARs. “All the five CAR states expressed agreement with India’s proposal,” said an official in the Ministry of External Affairs. India has proposed expanding this corridor through the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran rail link while “jointly developing special economic zones on either side of it.” The corridor is expected to boost the bilateral trade of these countries with India, which currently total barely $1.5 billion. “With Afghanistan as the nucleus, Indian goods could be sent via sea ports in Iran to the CARs,” the MEA source said. India has already committed more than $110 million to develop Iran's seaports at Chabahar and at Bandar Abbas, and is also “actively considering the development of a rail-link from Chabahar to Zaranj in Afghanistan.”

So it’s only natural that Iran—one of India’s most important sources of crude oil—is a key element in India’s effort at finding new strategic space in Central Asia. Iran is not only India’s best access to Central Asia, but the two countries share common geostrategic concerns in the Persian Gulf, Oman Sea and the Indian Ocean regions. Iran’s robust economic relations with India date back a long time and the Islamic Republic was always a dependable source of gas, oil, energy and petrochemicals for India, exporting non-oil commodities worth $3 billion to the subcontinent even when the sanctions were on. Iran’s recent nuclear framework agreement with the West and the subsequent lifting of western sanctions would therefore boost India’s chances of getting long-term access to Iranian oil. In turn, New Delhi could help Iran with infrastructure development, just as Indian companies could invest in Iranian oil and gas fields. Besides extensive bilateral cooperation in the energy sector, observers see a bigger role for India in Iran’s Chabahar port—just over 940 kms away from the Mundra port.

China’s growing sway in the CARs is another concern for India. Post 9/11, the US military presence in Afghanistan gave Beijing an excuse to use the prevailing tensions in the region to float the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) with the aim of fighting religious extremism and drug trafficking. Beijing then dug its heels in with an eye on the immense mineral resources of these countries, building mile after mile of pipelines and extensive road and railway networks across the region. Sharing borders with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan also helps China play the new ‘Great Central Asian Game’ better than India.

As former Indian ambassador to Kazakhstan Ashok Sajjanhar said, 'Despite the historical, civilizational and cultural linkages, India has not been able to take advantage of this connection.' But this could well change if India--having now laid the foundation for renewed engagement with the CARs—asserts its credentials as a rising power with a $2 trillion economy willing to partner with countries of the region. In 2013, India’s tepid response prompted Kazakhstan to deny ONGC Videsh Ltd a stake in the Kashagan oilfield (the world’s largest) and give it to the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation instead. There could be an encore if India continues to sit on the offer from Tajikistan to set up an energy transmission network there. India has to urgently address concerns like these before the country can emerge as a key player on the Central Asian strategic stage. (IPA Service)