Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s apparently impromptu visit to Lahore on Christmas day is readily explained by the need to contain the Taliban and ensure regional stability and connectivity in the ‘Heart of Asia’ after the US-led International Security Assistance Force withdraws next year. The visit follows growing realization in capitals across the region that mutual security interests must supersede Cold War alliances or ideological mindsets to avoid the fate of nations like Iraq and Syria. The Taliban and/or its mutants cannot be permitted to spread in the Afghan neighborhood, which includes Central Asia, Iran, Pakistan and India, an effort that calls for convergence between Kabul, Islamabad and New Delhi. One can discern the benign presence of Moscow and Beijing as both have huge stakes in a revitalized Asian economic boom independent of Western hegemony.
Besides China’s Silk Road project, several multi-nation projects centre on Afghanistan, viz, the Turkmen railways, transmission lines, highways, oil pipelines and gas pipelines including the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline. India wants to join the Afghanistan-Pakistan trade and transit agreement so that Afghan products can directly enter India and its products reach Afghan and Central Asian markets.
These mega-development prospects doubtless prompted Mr. Modi to engage with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on the sidelines of the Paris climate conference in late November. Thereafter the National Security Advisors met in Bangkok and smoothened the way for External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Islamabad for the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process conference on Afghanistan. India has huge stakes in the integration of Central Asia, East Asia and West Asia.Though not opposed, India does not expect a lasting peace to emerge from talks between the Afghan Government and Afghan Taliban groups. A better option is state-level engagement which Kabul too prefers. Hence, it is inconceivable that as he went through his Kabul engagements – inaugurating the India-built $90 million Parliament House, gifting three Mi-25 attack helicopters and 500 new scholarships for children of martyrs of Afghan security forces -Mr. Modi would not have discussed the Lahore stopover with President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah. It seems equally likely he mentioned it to Russian President Vladimir Putin before departing from Moscow. It may be relevant to note that since Russia began bombing IS positions in Syria, Pakistan does not favor regime change in Damascus.
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf party leader Imran Khan’s presence in India (possibly to deliver the Sharif family wedding invitation) and the mature welcome to Mr. Modi’s stopover by Pakistan political parties (as opposed to the Congress’s petty squabbling) suggests that the Pakistani polity may have achieved some degree of cohesion in tackling terrorism. The Peshawar school attack last year is a grim warning of the danger from non-state actors.
Mr. Modi’s first state visit to Russia, as part of the 16th Annual Bilateral Summit, has revitalized India’s most tried and trusted friendship and sent a signal to the international community that President Putin cannot be downsized by Western machinations. Mr. Modi secured Mr. Putin’s backing for India’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council and reiterated the commitment of both nations to a multipolar world order. Both nations already cooperate in forums like Brics and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (where Russia helped in India’s full membership), the G20 and the East Asia Summit.
Syria, Afghanistan and the common threat posed by terrorism figured in the talks, but the summit’s main takeaway was Russia’s big bang return to India’s defense and nuclear energy sectors. Mr. Modi’s Make in India project in the defense sector got a major boost with the deal to jointly manufacture 200 Kamov-226T light military helicopters.
The real triumph is the acquisition of five S- 400 Triumf surface-to-air missile systems (and 6,000 missiles). Literally the ‘crown jewels’ of Russia’s defense capability, the S-400 can destroy aircraft that use stealth technology, other fighter aircraft, cruise missiles and tactical missiles from up to 400 kilometers away, as effectively demonstrated earlier this month when Russia deployed the system to protect its Hmeimim airbase in Syria after Turkey downed a Russian jet.
This will give India the ability to engage multiple targets at long range and restore the strategic balance with China and Pakistan. With Prime Minister Modi reportedly budgeting $150 billion to upgrade India’s military, with the Navy planning to order three Russian frigate warships and a possible joint development of a fifth generation fighter aircraft, New Delhi could be Moscow’s salvation as the latter faces a second year of recession amid Western sanctions.
With the Paris climate conference failing to yield a comprehensive deal, the burden of combating global warming with clean energy expectedly fell upon individual nations. Mr. Modi having previously identified nuclear energy as pollution-free, the two nations are moving ahead with plans to build at least 12 nuclear power plants in India with the highest safety standards in the world, over the next 20 years. Two plants are slated to come up in Andhra Pradesh under the Make in India program. A vibrant partnership, however, calls for deeper economic integration. The Indian Prime Minister hopes to take advantage of the US-led Western sanctions against Russia to meet the latter’s demand for dairy products, seafood, and other goods and to attract Russian cash-rich billionaires to invest in India’s infrastructure fund, since they are no longer welcome in the old European financial havens due to Mr. Putin’s resistance to Western geo-political agendas to dismember West Asian and African countries on the lines of the old Yugoslavia.
Access to Russian capital for his Make in India campaign would empower Mr. Modi’s drive to build a strong indigenous manufacturing base to generate employment and export revenues. Given the sharp downturn in Russo-Turkey relations, Mr. Modi hopes that Russian tourists will flock to India (not just in Goa) and tasked the tiny Indian community in Russia to motivate Russian families to discover India.
Another gain is Russia’s commitment to ship 10 million ton of oil annually to energy-starved India in the next 10 years. Both countries plan to intensity collaboration in developing space exploration, rocket manufacture and engine manufacture, nano-technology, metallurgy, optics and software sectors. In substance, the visit announced that the Asian quest to forge a rational world order has moved to a new level. Mr. Modi’s short and informal visits to Afghanistan and Pakistan may be read as an invitation to take a seat of honor at the evolving new world concert.
(The author is a social development consultant and a columnist with The Pioneer, a leading newspaper of Delhi).