Author : K N Pandita, India belatedly has woke up to the importance of establishing closer and more favourable relations with the Central Asian Republics after they declared their independence in 1991. Perhaps India wanted to play discreetly with the imploded Soviet Union from which five Central Asian and two Trans-Caspian States separated to form sovereign republics. The Central Asian region, traditionally known as Turkestan, had remained almost out of bounds for the outside world during the Soviet era. India was no exception although the Soviets had generously allowed her to open a notional cultural office in Tashkent, the capital of the State of Uzbekistan. The first broad-based connectivity initiative taken by India called “Connect Central Asia” was during the maiden whirlwind visit of Prime Minister Modi to five Central Asian Republics – Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan --- almost a year after he had taken in his hands the reins of the government. The visit encompassed political, security, economic and cultural aspects for mutual consideration.[1] However, before PM Modi's visit, India had begun to take note of the dynamics of post-Soviet politics across the vast independent republics of Central Asia and the impact of organizations like SCO and EEC. India, as an Asian power, needed to balance the intrusion of these organizations. During his visit to the CARs in 2012, the then Minister of State in MEA, E. Ahmad outlined the Government of India's "Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement" to integrate its markets with the unifying Eurasian space. The vast energy and mineral resources of the Central Asian Republics were of much importance to energy-starved India. Likewise, India also contemplated collaboration in education, medical services, e-network and construction, banking and connectivity to which an effort of reactivating the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) would be integral.[2] The 2nd meeting of the India-CARs Dialogue held in the digital video conference format on 28 December 2020 was perhaps the most-result-oriented meeting that dealt with the entire spectrum of India-CARs cooperation and collaboration in almost all conceivable areas of development and modernization.  Besides the foreign ministers of five CARS, the Acting Foreign Minister of the then Islamic Republic of Afghanistan also participated in the video conference. It was in this meeting that the ministers welcoming the participation of Afghanistan in the India-Central Asia Dialogue called for the "settlement of the Afghan conflict on the principle of Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled peace process." The Ministers expressed their interest in strengthening cooperation for the development and economic reconstruction of Afghanistan, including through the implementation of infrastructure, energy, transit and transport projects.[3] However, it is to be noted that the members of the Indo-CARs Dialogue could do almost nothing when the Taliban ousted the elected government of Ashraf Ghani and took over Kabul on 15 August 2021. The only exception was the President of the Republic of Tajikistan, who openly rejected the Taliban take over and announced his support to the Panjsheer resistance movement anticipating the serious consequences for his country in case the Taliban remained in power and repeated their atrocious policy of repression. The 3rd Dialogue was held in New Delhi on 19 December 2021 under the chairmanship of S Jaishankar, the External Affairs Minister of India. Foreign Ministers of all the five CARs attended. The Ministers positively assessed the steps taken by the sides to implement the decisions taken at the 1st and 2nd India-Central Asia Dialogues. In this regard, they welcomed the signing of MoUs for the implementation of High Impact Community Development Projects (CDPs) for socio-economic development in Central Asian countries, based on grant assistance by India. They also welcomed the projects approved for implementation and looked forward to expeditious identification and implementation of more projects under this mechanism. They noted the ongoing discussions about the utilization of the US $ 1 bn Line of Credit announced last year for infrastructure development projects in Central Asian countries and mandated their senior officials to make efforts for early progress in this regard. Among other spheres of interest deliberated upon in the first two dialogues and which emerged in a more emphatic outreach in the third Dialogue is of connectivity since the Central Asian region including Afghanistan is landlocked. The statement of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs throws light on this subject. It says: “The Ministers emphasized optimum usage of the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) as well as the Ashgabat Agreement on International Transport and Transit Corridor to enhance connectivity between India and the Central Asian countries. They stress that connectivity initiatives should be based on the principles of transparency, broad participation, local priorities, financial sustainability and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries. They welcomed the proposal to include Chabahar Port within the framework of INSTC and expressed interest in cooperation on issues related to the development and strengthening of regional connectivity in Central and South Asia. In this regard, the Ministers noted the outcomes of the High-Level International Conference "Central and South Asia: Regional Connectivity; Challenges and Opportunities", held on 15-16 July 2021 in Tashkent as well as the second India-Uzbekistan-Iran trilateral meeting on the joint use of Chabahar Port in December 2021. India welcomed the interest of Central Asian countries to utilize the services of Shaheed Beheshti Terminal at Chabahar Port for facilitating their trade with India and beyond. The Sides agreed to continue engagement for further developing the transit and transport potential of their countries, improving the logistics network of the region and promoting joint initiatives to create regional and international transport corridors. The Sides agreed to explore possibilities to establish joint working group(s), including the participation of the private sector, to address issues of free movements of goods and services between India and Central Asian countries.”[4] India's 'Connect Central Asia' policy is a broad-based approach, including political, security, economic and cultural connections. Taking a wholesome view of the three dialogues held so far with a commitment of continued interaction between India and the CARs in future, two dimensions of the exercise need to be taken up for discussion. The first is whether the India-Central Asia Dialogue is the Indian initiative to counter the growing presence of Chinese footprints in the vast region with which its border meet. China's plans for the region, such as the KKH, CPEC, R&B Initiative, upgrading of Gwadar seaport on Makran coast and handing over of the world's largest and the strongest naval warship to Pakistan, are neither insignificant projects nor are they without political and strategic fallout for big Asian power like India. There is a danger that if these projects are completed, India's space and spheres of influence will shrink considerably with adverse impact on her trade and commerce. It is a direct challenge to India's security and stability. Modi government has worked hard to establish good friendly relations with the Gulf countries and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in particular and they expect much from us. At a time when the UAE and now the Saudi Kingdom as well, are opening up to modernism and distancing away from Wahhabi-Salafi fundamentalism, and are going to make a huge impact on the Arab and Muslim world, they need support from democratic, secular, progressive and egalitarian India and not fundamentalist and violent theocratic Islamic organizations as in Pakistan and elsewhere which are proving a hindrance to the modernization of the ummah. In and outside the UN and its subsidiaries, China is strictly following the Maoist axiom of "power flows from the barrel of the gun.” This is discernible in China's encroachments along the Sino-Indian Himalayan border, in South China Sea Island States and her threatening posture in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The second dimension that has to be brought into discussion is the role of Russia in Asian strategy. As a practice of astute diplomacy, no big power allows an ambitious and aspiring power any space close to its borders. Despite the apparent goodwill stance exuded by both sides, Russia is wary of expanding Chinese footprints in Central Asia, particularly in the areas of energy, pipeline security, minerals and the threat of theocratic terrorism. Moscow was not too happy with Tajikistan allowing India the strategic airbase of Ainy in the 1990s and India had to suspend her activities for some years when things changed. But with the ignominious exit of the American and NATO forces from Afghanistan in August , and the Taliban rejoicing in Russian friendship in its hour of need, and the overall impact of the Taliban takeover of Kabul have made Russia re-assess the situation from different but pragmatic parameters. Russia twice invited the Taliban and another stakeholder (Pakistan, Iran and India in the second meeting) to Moscow for discussing the Afghanistan issue. Perhaps Moscow has been under pressure from the CARs to obtain a positive commitment from the Taliban that their soil would not be allowed to be used by terrorist groups to carry attacks against a third country. Russia has not confined itself only to watching the Afghan and Taliban scenario. Moscow takes a wider and more comprehensive view of the ground situation in which the Islamic theocracy seems to be pitted against democracy and the rights of the people of the free world. Here we find totalitarian capitalism threatening liberal democracy and individual freedom. It appears that the US has second thoughts about Indo-Pacific. The creation of AUKUS, the naval alliance between Australia, the UK and the USA, a formation within the Quad-4, somehow takes away something from the importance of Quad-4. This is how Beijing interprets it. France considers the creation of AUKUS a stab in her back by the US because of snatching away from her hands a multi-billion dollar contract of building nuclear-armed subs for Australia. Though Russia is averse to Quad-4, yet she desisted from levelling harsh criticism of the same. It was because of India factor and the Chinese belligerence. Even then the US and its allies thought that in the context of Quad-4, China and Russia were on the same page which, however, was a ploy not conviction. Quad – 4 had put Moscow in a somewhat embarrassing situation. The reason was India's participation in Quad-4. Moscow understands that India would not easily give her consent to be part of any military alliance including naval partnership but the aggressive stance of China against India on the land and sea was a compulsion for New Delhi to be part of a military-specific alliance though the US tried to present Quad-4 more as a developmental and collaborative initiative rather than a military alliance. Thus if President Putin could convince India that a bargain in which China commits to put an end to hostilities and recognize the LoAC along the Himalayas as the permanent border between India and China, and India promises to walk out of Quad-4 and other US-sponsored military alliances, this would not only bring easement to their hostilities but would also enhance Russia’s prestige among the CARs as an honest broker of peace between Asian powers. Russia's other concern is the rising crescendo of radical Islamists in non-Arab countries led by Pakistan and Turkey posing together a challenge to modernizing and reforming Arab countries with UAE and the Saudi Kingdom in the lead. The fast-tracking of reforms by the Crown Prince Salman of Saudi Arabia has sent a shock down the spine of fundamentalist Pakistan, Iran, Malaysia and Turkey who have been aspiring to sideline the leadership of the ummah by the Saudis and take the lead in their  hands. The most vicious attempt of frustrating the reform ambitions of Prince Salman is by Pakistan. While the Saudi government ordered the imposition of a ban on the Tableeghi Jamaat (Pakistan-India based) calling it the door of terrorism and the source of destruction of the ummah, Pakistan labelled the Tableeghi Jamaat a genuine religious group and ridiculed the Saudis for banning it.  Prince Salman has not only mistrusted the tradition (hadith) but has also said that the Quran has to be re-interpreted in the background of current history and society. All this is gall to Pakistan leaders who have been thriving on fuelling the flames of radical Islam ever since that state was carved out of India in 1947 by the British colonialists. Pakistan, Iran and their fundamentalist supporters in Egypt, Turkey and Malaysia etc. have formed an unwritten alliance under the patronizing eye of President Xi of China and are poised to take on the Westminster-type democracy. It is not the Ghazavatu’l Hind only but in reality, it is headed towards the actual War of Civilizations or the War of Ideologies. Russia is frantically trying to find its rightful place and seeks guidance from India, a long-standing trusted friend. Endnotes [1] Menon, Rhea; Rajiv, Sharanya (1 December 2019). "Realizing India's Strategic Interests in Central [2] "Keynote address by MOS Shri E. Ahamed at First India-Central Asia Dialogue". Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India. 12 June 2012 [3] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, Joint Statement of the 2nd meeting of the India-Central Asia Dialogue, October 28, 2020 4 MEA, GoI, Joint Statement of the 3rd meeting of India-CA Dialogue. 19 Dec 2021.   K N Pandita (The author is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University) Article uploaded: 02-01-2022. Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he/she belongs to or of the USI of India.