The three-day official trip of president Ram Nath Kovind to Tajikistan was preceded by the visits of Uzbek president Shavkat Mirziyoyev and the Russian president Vladimir Putin to India earlier this month. More than a mere coincidence, these meetings in quick succession underline the growing recognition of Eurasia in the geostrategic calculations of India’s foreign policy. The Eurasia, with Russia at its core, is emerging as a key region where several global players such as the US, the European Union, China, India, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey are vying for influence. The Eurasia remains under the security umbrella of Russia while China has emerged as the most influential economic player.
President Kovind’s visit seeks to reinvigorate the special relationship that India established with Tajikistan in the 1990s following the capture of Kabul by the Taliban. India supported the Tajik forces of Badakshan region and the Panjshir valley. Tajikistan became the base for India’s support to the Northern Alliance forces in their fight against the Taliban backed by al-Qaeda and Pakistan. Given this favourable history, it is in the strategic interest of India to maintain close ties with Tajikistan which still wields some influence over co-ethnic political groups in Afghanistan. Russia, China, and Iran are in talks with the Taliban to find a political solution in Afghanistan. India must tie-up with countries like Tajikistan, Iran and Russia to find a political solution in Afghanistan.
Soon after its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Tajikistan plunged into a civil war which ended with a peace agreement in 1997. Owing largely to the civil war and lack of infrastructure, Tajikistan became one of the poorest countries in Central Asia. There is a wide scope for investment in infrastructure, healthcare, education, mining and service sector. Tajikistan’s biggest source of revenue is the remittance sent by its migrant workers in Russia which constitutes roughly 35 percent of its GDP. This shows the status of its economic development.
The security of Tajikistan is ensured by the presence of Russian forces, the 201st Motor Rifle Division. They are stationed in bases in Dushanbe and Qurghonteppa. Their estimated number is around 7,000 troops. Russia is believed to have strengthened military base in Tajikistan fearing the growing influence of the ISIS in Afghanistan. Tajikistan is also a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), two security organisations in Eurasia.
The significance of Central Asia, a part of Eurasia, lies in its geostrategic location and vast hydrocarbon and other resources. It borders China, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. China has invested heavily and its bilateral trade with five states reached $30 billion, compared to Russia’s $18 billion in 2016. In a context when Asia is emerging as a manufacturing hub and Europe and Africa as important destinations for those products, the vitality of Central Asia as a land transit route cannot be overstated.
India has its own Connect Central Asia policy. It has signed a tripartite connectivity agreements with Iran and Afghanistan to develop port facilities at Chabahar as a transit hub, rivalling China’s Gwadar port in Pakistan. This will connect India to Afghanistan and Central Asia through Iran. But its implementation has been slow and India’s investment in Central Asia has been abysmal compared to China.
India was one of the first countries to recognise the independence of Tajikistan and has maintained a cordial relationship with her. Both countries share their perceptions on regional stability, the menace of terrorism and drug trafficking. There has been a regular exchange of the heads of states and ministers in the last 15 years. The relationship was elevated to strategic partnership in 2012. This covers a wide spectrum of political, cultural, economic, strategic and multilateral cooperation. The president of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon visited India six times. The relationship received a fresh impetus when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited all the Central Asian states in 2015. The focus was on defence, connectivity and terrorism.
The bilateral trade between India and Tajikistan stands at roughly $74 million which has gone up from $11 million in 2004-2005. There is an immense scope for Indian investment in hydro-electricity which can be sold to the energy-deficient neighbouring states. India modernized a 1936 vintage Varzob-1 Hydro Power Station through Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL) and National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) in 2012. It also completed the setting up of 37 computer labs as committed during Modi’s visit. Indian companies have invested in power transmission, hotel and other service sectors. Nearly 1800 students have received scholarships to study in India. Bollywood films are extremely popular in Tajikistan. India awarded the Padma Shri award to the famous Indologist, Habibullo Rajabov, for his contribution to education and literature in 2018.
India renovated the Ayni air base in Tajikistan between 2002 and 2010. Indian media reported this to be the first military air base of India in a foreign country. But according to experts, this base is not operational as Russia is not keen to allow foreign powers to deploy fighter aircraft in the region.
During President Kovind’s visit, India and Tajikistan signed a number of agreements related to political relations, agriculture, energy, pharmaceutical, science and technology and disaster management. It offered a grant of $ 20 million for development projects. It will also help Tajikistan in setting up solar projects and English language facilities for the Tajik military.
In the final analysis, Tajikistan remains important for its geostrategic location which provides access to Afghanistan in its South, China in the East, and the greater Eurasian landmass in the West. New Delhi should speed up its connectivity projects such as International North-South Transport Corridor, Chabahar Port and Ashgabat Agreement for a better connection with Central Asia, as stressed by president Kovind.
(Dr Rajan Kumar is Associate Professor, School of International Studies, JNU)