The formal announcement has not yet been made, but India is hoping to invite leaders of the five Central Asian nations – Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and the Kyrgyz Republic to be the guests of honour for this year’s Republic Day celebrations. New Delhi will make it official only when all five leaders give their consent, but given the global health alarm, the situation remains fluid. The surge in the Covid-19 cases around the world and the emergence of the Omicron, the latest quick-spreading variant is a major obstacle. Omicron is spreading not just in India but across the region and the final call for the Republic Day celebrations, 2022 has to be taken keeping the global health pandemic in mind. The parade could be scaled down or some of the invitees may not be in a position to leave their countries if the domestic health situation takes a critical turn.
Generally, the leader of a single nation is invited, but in 2018, New Delhi invited the leaders of the 10-nation ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) group to mark the occasion, signifying the importance of ASEAN and the importance India attaches to relations with ASEAN.
This time, the focus is on the Central Asian nations and thanks largely to the affairs in Afghanistan and the region becoming the hot spot for the global power play. Inviting Presidents Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan, Sadyr Japarov of Kyrgyzstan, Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov of Turkmenistan, and Shavkat Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan, signifies the importance of the region for India’s strategic, political and economic interests.
India has been paying much more attention to Central Asia since 2015 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited all five nations. While political relations are good, the problem of connectivity makes it impossible to increase trade and economic ties. Russia remains the dominant power in Central Asia. But China has also stepped up its presence in the region through its Belt and Road Initiative and is building infrastructure across Central Asia.
With Pakistan not allowing passage to Indian goods, and Afghanistan now under the control of the Taliban, access remains a major issue for India. However, the strategic interests of all five Central Asian countries and India are similar. So, India has been reaching out to these nations.
All Central Asian powers were invited to the Afghanistan meet hosted by NSA Ajit Doval on November 10. Again on December 18-19, foreign ministers of all five nations were hosted by India’s external affairs minister Subramanyam Jaishankar for the third India-Central Asia dialogue, where Afghanistan was the focus.
With the US and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) forces out of Afghanistan and the Taliban not quite in control of the outlying provinces of the country, the fear that radical forces will once again establish themselves on Afghan soil is of concern, not just to India but Central Asia as well. In fact, radical Islamic groups are challenging the ruling governments and want to establish an Islamic Emirate as in Afghanistan. They are taking help from Russia and to a lesser extent from China to guard their borders with Afghanistan.
While the five countries are Muslim majority states, religion is not the defining force here. Having once been a part of the former Soviet Union, all of them are ideologically against religious extremism and have long been secular nations. But radical Islamic ideology has been infiltrating the region and posing a threat to the strong men who rule over a corrupt system in many of these countries. The Taliban rule in Afghanistan and the fact that ISIS, Al Qaeda and other Islamic groups are present in sizable numbers is a worry to everyone. ISIS(K) came into the limelight after the deadly attack near the Kabul airport during the American evacuation that killed nearly 170 people, including 13 US marines.
India is hoping to increase its footprints in Central Asia and is going all out to woo the leaders. The decision to invite the five leaders as guests of honour on Republic Day is in keeping with India’s hopes of getting a toe-hold in the region.