TRADE: THE NEW GREAT GAME

The Great Game — also known as Bolshaya Igra — was all about intense rivalry between the British and Russian Empires in Central Asia (from early 19th century to early 20th century), wherein Britain sought to influence or control much of Central Asia to create a buffer to her empire’s “crown jewel,” India. Declassified British archives in fact clearly reveal why the Brits partitioned India to create Pakistan (Unravelling the Kashmir Knot, by Aman Hingorani-Sage) — to extend the great barrier for Russia and to create a long-term loyal puppy of the British, as also a thorn in India’s side.

The Brits failed to predict the irony that when India needed arms to deal with two hostile neighbours and neither they nor any western power provided them, it would be Soviet Russia supplying up to 70 percent arms and equipment to India’s three armed forces at very political prices and forging a long-term friendship. Whereas Britain’s aim in the Great Game was extension and protection of its power while plundering the resources of its colonies, World War II marked the beginning of the end of the British Empire. Eventually, with the US and USSR emerging as powers representing the western and eastern blocs, the new Great Game became one of power-power to trade, power to prevent rivals and smaller nations from trading, sanctions etc.

A further irony was that a decade after USSR’s breakup, despite sanctions, India and Russia signed an agreement in February 1998, to design, develop, manufacture and market BrahMos (coined as a combo of Brahmaputra and Moscva rivers), a versatile supersonic cruise missile system, capable of launch from land, aircraft, ships and even submarines, which was successfully accomplished by 2006, producing the world’s fastest cruise missile. The collapse of the Soviet Union left five Central Asian Republics (CAR) namely Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan as the largest landlocked region, with no access to any ocean and dependent on Russia, China, Iran and other nations to provide it access to warm ports.The Trade Game, a revised extension to India-Central Asia Relations: The Economic Dimension, is the work of Dr. Amiya Chandra, a senior level bureaucrat who, in the Commerce Ministry, has handled the East European region including Central Asia, and was part of the Indian government’s delegation which set up India’s trade route to Central Asia via Iran.

This study endeavours to evaluate the extent and pattern of over two decades of their economic and trade ties in order to make a future projection of the on-going relations. It seeks the Indian policymakers to be aware of the fact that an all-round economic engagement with Central Asia can be an answer to New Delhi’s multiple objectives:

(a) to maintain India’s positive political influence in the region,

(b) to meet India’s energy requirements,

(c) to enhance and bring better efficiency in Indian manufacturing through strategic material sourcing,

(d) to develop new markets for Indian products and services and

(e) for mutual prosperity, promoting and strengthening people to people contact.

To overcome the problem of the CARs being landlocked, India’s short-term objective is trying to reactivate a shorter, cheaper and quicker route to Central Asia. This is the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) that runs through Iran and was agreed upon by India, Iran and Russia in 2002. The INSTC has been expanded to include other members, such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Ukraine and Belarus. The INSTC envisages a movement of goods to and from Mumbai to the Bandar Abbas port in Iran by sea, from Bandar Abbas to Bandar-e-Anzali (an Iranian port on the Caspian Sea) by rail and road, from Bandar-e- Anzali to Astrakhan (a Russian port, across the Caspian Sea) by ship and from Astrakhan to other regions in Russia by rail. According to feasibility studies, this route could reduce the time and cost of container delivery by 30–40percent. This route may provide access not just to Central Asia, but also Russia and the South Caucasus, with a viable access to the sea through the territory of Iran.

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Anil Bhat

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