With Afghanistan, India marks its rise in Central Asia

In the annals of diplomatic advice, this one, proffered by former Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor, must rank as the most enigmatic.

Never try to telephone an Afghan at 8.30 in the evening, he once said.

And why not?

Because, Tharoor said, that’s when the Indian TV soap opera Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, dubbed into the Dari language, would be telecast on Afghanistan’s Tolo TV, and no one wishes to miss it.

In fact, Tharoor further recalled, Afghan cities also witnessed a spike in petty crime rates during the time that the saas-bahu serial was beamed — because watchmen were distracted by the TV screen and the family drama that was unfolding.

Tharoor frequently narrates this anecdote as evidence of India’s increasing ‘soft power’ projection around the world – and even in war-wracked places like Afghanistan. And although that point does have its merits, India until recently did not have anything harder than soft power to project in the troubled region.

Manmohan Singh and Hamid Karzai

Afghan President Hamid Karzai arrived in India on a two-day visit. B Mathur/Reuters

After Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s two-day visit to New Delhi beginning today, that failing will have been sufficiently remedied. The two countries, brought closer together in recent weeks by a shared threat perception arising from Pakistan-backed Taliban fighters and jihadis, are to formalise a strategic relationship that holds momentous significance for both India and Afghanistan – and for how India defines its place in the region.

It could mark the moment when India begins, however tentatively, to play the Great Game in Central Asia.

Late last month, the Australia India Institute hosted a conference in Melbourne, whose very name summed up India’s somewhat diminutive standing. The conference, billed The Reluctant Superpower, was intended to explore why India, with all the buzz around its economic rise, wasn’t casting a longer shadow on the world stage.

Even the formalisation of the strategic relationship with Afghanistan, under which India will undertake to train Afghanistan’s police and armed forces, doesn’t quite mean that India is announcing its emergence as a military power. It isn’t imperialistic outreach ambitions that are driving India’s efforts to get a foothold in Afghanistan; it is more the compelling need to protect a strategic flank that was used by Pakistan, during the Taliban-ruled years, as a breeding ground for jihadi terrorists who were then unleashed in Kashmir and elsewhere in India.

The Economist, in its latest edition, recounts the swagger of a whisky-slinging retired senior Pakistani official to explain Pakistan’s sponsorship of jihadis in Afghanistan. Pakistan, he is reported as saying, has no choice in the matter. After all, the Indians were throwing money at their own favourites in Afghanistan, and so were the Russians and the Iranians. Pakistan too felt compelled to play the game, “except that we have no money. All we have are the crazies. So the crazies it is.”

For that very reason – because Pakistan sponsors the “crazies” – India’s stepping up with an enhanced profile, however necessary from its own standpoint, is fraught with many perils. After all, Afghanistan has proven to be the graveyard of empires – from Alexander to Genghis Khan to the Mughals, the British, the Soviet Union — and now, the US, which is contemplating retreat after a 10-year war in hostile terrain that bled it dry.

The costly lesson of entanglement in a war where the enemy is ready to fight you forever is only now dawning on the US. Which is why the US is eager to see India step up and take over the baton – and pay the blood price to secure a foothold in Afghanistan.

Yet, for all its enhanced profile in Afghanistan, India is justifiably wary of getting directly involved in the ethnic conflicts that have wracked the country for centuries. It is impossible to visualise how the conflict in Afghanistan will unravel in the lead-up to and beyond the 2014 timetable for the withdrawal of US troops from there. Still more difficult is it to know whether the country will remain united or be balkanised along ethnic lines – and what such a partition could mean from an Indian strategic perspective.

Afghanistan’s rich deposit of minerals also makes it a trophy that is coveted by other emerging global players, including China. And although China doesn’t quite have the same ‘soft power’ advantage that India perceptibly does, it has many more levers to operate – including enhanced money power, besides Pakistan’s willingness to act as its proxy state.

In such a hazy scenario, the only thing that can be said with certainty is that there is enormous scope for things to go horribly wrong.

Yet, the very fact that India is stepping up and doing what it has to in order to secure its immediate strategic interests in Afghanistan represents, in many ways, a rite of passage in India’s gradual emergence as a “reluctant superpower”.

Watch video of Afghan President Hamid Karzai arriving in India

Updated Date: Oct 04, 2011 14:24 PM

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