Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Why does India need Iran?

There is one aspect of Indo-Iranian ties that has either been completely ignored or grossly underreported. Obviously, it is not about oil or gas for tomes have been written about how Iran can be a strategic source for the two. My argument pushing for closer ties with Tehran, on the other hand, simply concerns the ability to stretch our arms on the western flank. Hemmed in by a belligerent Pakistan, Iran happens to be India’s only way out to the west. That would mean overland access to the resource-rich and strategic Central Asia, which also includes Afghanistan. And for a country with aspirations for a regional power status, not being caged is extremely crucial.

Map sourced from the library of the University of Texas

Take a look a map of West Asia. If not for Iran, India would have to take a long detour and pass through the Arabian peninsula, comprising a clutch of Gulf Cooperation Council countries, and then transit through either Syria, Jordan or Iraq to enter Turkey and then turn eastward to Central Asia. Quite a protracted and expensive detour compared to what Iran offers with its borders with Armenia, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea. With Pakistan still unrelenting to grant India overland access to Afghanistan and the rest of the region, Iran happens to be India’s only bet. And that is a reason important enough for maintaining good ties with Tehran.

With all due credit, this is something that has not eluded our strategists; India and Iran have launched transport infrastructure projects as Delhi seeks the shortest route to Central Asia. But progress has been meagre and undoubtedly hampered by nuclear politics.

The most ambitious of all is the Border Roads Organisation’s ongoing exercise to build a road from Delaram to Zaranj in southwest Afghanistan. That several Indians working on this stretch have either been kidnapped or killed by those inimical to a growing Indian reach only highlights its immense geopolitical importance. The idea is to link Afghanistan’s network of highways to Zaranj that is located on the border with Iran. And then link Zaranj with Iran’s network of road and rail to the Chabahar port, south of Iran near Bandar Abbas, that India is helping rebuild. When this network is finally in place, landlocked Afghanistan will have access to another port and not necessarily pass through Karachi. More importantly, this network will allow India to bypass Pakistan in its trade with Afghanistan and Central Asia.

While progress has been made in Afghanistan, things have not moved ahead in Iran. Meanwhile, China has gone ahead and constructed the port at Gwadar in Pakistan and linked it with roads from there leading to the Karokaram highway and into China. Gwadar has thus lent China a strategic hold on the sea lanes in the zone. Indian Naval Chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta feels the port would also “enable Pakistan take control over the world energy jugular (Strait of Hormuz) and interdiction of Indian tankers”. The port at Chabahar, on the hand, is yet to be developed and has been undoubtedly affected by the fallout of the Iranian nuclear crisis. The contract to do so was awarded in 2004 to the Hindujas, who are partnering with the Indian government’s RITES and IRCON. Some Iranian analysts argue Iran has deliberately been reticent on Chabahar because of India’s anti-Iranian position at IAEA.

But Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit yesterday has brought in new momentum and one hopes the two countries will be able to set aside their differences and pursue this project. India, it was announced, will also be cooperating with Iranian authorities to develop a 600-km long Chabahar port and Fahraj rail line that is part of a multi-modal transport corridor to Russia via Iran.

Both countries stand to gain: India gets uninterrupted access to Central Asia and Iran earns a substantial transit fee on transactions through Chabahar.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A slavish media and Rahul Gandhi

There are many ways to screw your mornings. Reading a servile piece of journalism the first thing is one of them. And that's what happened to me today when I read Punya Priya Mitra's (Six hrs in MP: Rahul makes a promise, some conversation) piece in Hindustan Times on Rahul Gandhi's visit to a tribal region in Madhya Pradesh. Before this gem goes off the Internet, I am reproducing it here in all its glory:

Filed from Jhabua, April 29, 2008

Rahul Gandhi wrapped up his three-day visit to Madhya Pradesh on Monday with an unscheduled whirlwind tour of villages in tribal district Jhabua.

People fell over each other to touch him, get photographed with him, and Rahul obliged all, with a ready smile. (Parachute in any gora tourist, like him, there and people would behave the same way. What quality of Rahul's does this highlight? Nothing but for the fact how "exotic" he remains in vast swathes of India.)

He spoke to tribals, asked them how they lived and their means of livelihood. He often put his arms around them or quietly slapped their backs to strike up an instant camaraderie. (Didn't the reporter find something more worthwhile to report about? Like the deprivation there? HT would have us believe Rahul was meeting pals at a bar over a Bloody Mary!) The tribals spoke about their problems and the AICC general secretary assured them of all help from the Centre. (Again, how long will it take for her to realise such promises mean nothing?)

Rahul’s secret programme (It would surprise me the villagers were not told about his arrival in advance.) was known only to PCC president Suresh Pachauri and AICC secretary Minaxi Natarajan till his chopper landed at Jhabua around 10.40 am. His cavalcade’s first halt was at Christian-dominated tribal village Raipuria.

Here, Bercharam, a local, invited him home for tea. But Rahul refused with grace (Oh, I see! Did he even have a halo when he refused the offer?), asking: “Why? Is tea at the hotel bad?” And, along with others, he sat on the rickety benches (With much pain, I presume? Another question, how comfortable is his seat in his SUV or his chopper?) of Bharti Restaurant. When he gave Rs 100 for the cups of tea they had, the boy impishly refused. But, Pachauri cajoled him to accept it as gift.

Two kilometers away, Rahul stopped at Sagaria village, where he went to the mud houses (A big achievement for him, I guess? So much so that it merits a special mention?) of Dhanna, Prem Singh, Ambaram, Heera, Somla and Hari Singh.

Dhanna said Rahul asked him about the crop he had sown. “I told him that I had sown tomato and while I had invested Rs 15,000, I only recovered Rs 10,000. At this, he told me that my loan would be waived,” (Give us an update if it really happens. The last time Rahul made a promise to help a tribal woman with Rs 20,000 for her daughter's marriage, it wasn't fulfilled. And an opportunistic CM of Madhya Pradesh, from the BJP, willingly obliged to highlight Gandhi's vacuous promises.) said Dhanna.

Ambaram said: “I told him about the method of farming, and he nodded his head. He knew a lot of agriculture”. (Maybe it limited to the fact that plants need water to grow?)

Rahul also quizzed people about the effectiveness of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. “Most of us told him that water and electricity were the major problems in the area,” said Hari Singh.

From there he went to Sampark where he checked the solar power plant that meets the village’s power needs.

The next halt was Unnai Churchat Petlawad. Here he spoke to two school students and asked them if they wanted to study in Delhi. Too shy to answer, they looked at their parents who said: “Why not, if someone pays for it”. Rahul immediately offered to sponsor them. (Another hollow promise?)

From there on it was a mini-road show through Petwalad, Thandla, Meghnagar then to Jhabua. From there, he flew to Ratlam in a helicopter at 4.40 pm.

(And, mercifully, that was the end of the ordeal!)