Why PM Modi’s 'Dravidi Pranayam' Failed at Chabahar

In 2016, India, Iran and Afghanistan signed an agreement to establish a transit and transport corridor using the Chabahar port. This was an alternative route and so roundabout that it was the equivalent of taking one’s hand behind one’s head to reach the nostril.

No offence meant to the great Dravidian culture, but it is necessary to use the metaphor of ‘Dravidi Pranayam’ to describe Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s major foreign policy failure at Chabahar port in Iran.

Before I tell you what ‘Dravidi Pranayam’ is, let me state my main argument upfront: the failure at Chabahar can be corrected only if India — in cooperation with China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and other countries in the region — begins to do the ’Connectivity Pranayam’ in South Asia and elsewhere the normal way.

To put it simply, India will have to partner with China in its Belt and Road Initiative at some point in future if it is serious about having land-based economic, trade and travel links with countries in our western and eastern neighbourhood, Central Asia and Eurasia.

BRI, the ambitious plan to modernise the road, rail, port, energy and industrial infrastructure, and revitalise socio-cultural bonds, along the ancient territorial and maritime silk routes linking China to Asia, Africa and Europe, is a reality India cannot ignore, much less compete against. Unveiled in two stages by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 — the “Silk Road Economic Belt” in Kazakhstan and the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” in Indonesia — BRI’s seven-year history has indeed highlighted its several shortcomings in both design and execution.

Nevertheless, adhering to their ancient adage of “crossing the river by feeling the stones”, the Chinese will continue to experiment, learn from their mistakes, and improve it by incorporating domestic and global feedback. But will they abandon it? No. Rather, they will implement it with the same determination that they displayed in building the Great Wall many centuries ago. Indeed, BRI’s regional and trans-regional footprint dwarfs the Great Wall.

Therefore, India can in no way circumvent China if it wants to become a major contributor to, and also a big beneficiary of, Asia’s future regional connectivity and cooperation architecture. What India and China can cooperatively achieve is far greater than what each can do separately. Defying this logic, the Modi government has tried to pursue its own separate connectivity plan with Iran.

Shockingly, while seeking Iran’s partnership, it has also shown stark apathy towards Tehran’s core concerns. This is evident from its refusal to condemn the US’s military threats and immoral and crippling economic sanctions against Iran. These sanctions have taken a heavy toll on the wellbeing of our fraternal Iranian people. Predictably, India has suffered a major setback over Chabahar. This, clearly, is a wake-up call for Modi and his advisors.

We have a quintessentially Indian metaphor to explain this setback. ‘Dravidi Pranayam’ is not a term very familiar to north Indians, much less to people around the world. Yes, the popularity of yoga has made sure lots of people know about ‘pranayam’, a wonderful health-promoting breathing exercise. Close the left nostril with one thumb, inhale, and do the same with the right nostril. Simple. But what if someone tells us to try touching the left nostril by taking one’s right hand behind one’s head?

That’s ‘Dravidi Pranayam’ for you. It simply means taking a difficult, round-about route to reach one’s destination.

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Modi’s plans to bypass Pakistan and China will never work

Modi, who has done more to popularise yoga globally than any other Indian political leader in history, certainly would not recommend it to anyone. Yet, he has persisted with India taking a roundabout route to gain access to its great civilisational neighbour Afghanistan, and further to the vast Eurasian landmass. India did so by agreeing with Iran to develop a container terminal at Chabahar, the deep-water port in the Gulf of Oman that opens into the Arabian Sea.

From Chabahar, India planned to build a 628-km rail link to Zahedan on Afghanistan border, which would then be connected to Kabul via Zaranj and Delaram. Both from Chabahar and from another nearby Iranian port at Bandar Abbas, India (along with Iran and Russia) also envisioned the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), a multi-model sea, rail road route to move freight all the way from India to Russia and Europe, via Iran, the Caucasus, and Central Asia.

“Mumbai to Kabul”? “Mumbai to Moscow”?  That is a super-exciting vision, no doubt. But it overlooks an important fact. A more direct, shorter and simpler route to reach land-locked Afghanistan and beyond is always available. It would necessitate reopening the centuries-old land route through Pakistan, which has remained virtually closed. This road is part of one of the longest and oldest highways in Asia first built as ‘Uttarpath’ by Emperor Chandragupt Maurya in the third century BC, and rebuilt by Shershah Suri in the 16th century.

A general view of an oil dock is seen from a ship at the port of Kalantari in the city of Chabahar, 300km (186 miles) east of the Strait of Hormuz January 17, 2012. Photo: Reuters/Raheb Homavandi/Files

Modernised by the British as the Grand Trunk Road, it stretches all the way from Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh to Kabul. For re-connecting South Asia geographically, and for re-integrating it socio-economically, there is no better solution than to open up, and further expand and upgrade, this great subcontinental thoroughfare built by our brave ancestors.

Take a look at the map of Asia. It will be obvious that the Delhi-Amritsar-Lahore-Kabul route is ideal for resuming trade and travel from India to Afghanistan and beyond. However, that route would be available only if India and Pakistan reduced their seemingly endless hostility, and achieved a semblance of normalisation in their relations. With our government in no mood to resume dialogue with Pakistan anytime soon (unless, as our ministers never tire of saying, the latter agrees to give PoK on a platter to India), that option is farthest from the minds of Modi’s advisors in New Delhi.

Also read: Mao’s ‘Smile’, Nixon’s ‘Frown’: What Modi Can Learn From Indira’s Mistakes in Befriending China

That is why the Modi government started exploring the alternative route to reach Afghanistan. In 2016, India, Iran and Afghanistan signed an agreement to establish a transit and transport corridor using Chabahar port. But the alternative was so roundabout that it was really the equivalent of taking one’s hand behind one’s head to reach the nostril. The road journey between Amritsar to Kabul is 854 km. The ship, rail and road journey from Mumbai to Kabul is 2,752 km.

Why Chabahar could not have become India’s answer to China’s BRI

The Chabahar solution, if you recall the anti-China punditry in the past four years, was meant to be India’s answer to BRI. The Modi government has boycotted BRI partly under American pressure but mainly due to the wrong advice the prime minister has received from his aides.

India’s chief reason for rejecting the BRI has been that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship project under BRI linking Kashgar in western China with Gwadar port on the Indian Ocean (just 72 kms away from Chabahar), passes through Gilgit-Baltistan, over which India claims sovereignty for being part of the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir princely state.

India’s claim on Muslim-majority Gilgit Baltistan (GB) is highly questionable. The people and local rulers of GB revolted against Maharaja Hari Singh of Jammu within days of his accession to India on October 26, 1947, and hoisted the Pakistani flag. India’s claim is also fruitless because there is no realistic possibility of India ever gaining physical control of GB and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), short of waging and winning an expansionist war against nuclear-armed Pakistan.

That possibility has further vanished after the recent India-China standoff in Ladakh. One of the principal objectives of China’s military build-up along the disputed Line of Actual Control in Ladakh has been to protect CPEC in nearby GB. If India ever decides to wrest GB through military action, it will have to fight a two-front war simultaneously against Pakistan and China.

Chabahar map

This shows how myopic the Modi government’s decision to alter the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir by scrapping Article 370 in August last year was. Home minister Amit Shah had even asserted in parliament at the time that both PoK and Aksai Chin (the 38,000 km territory in eastern Ladakh that is under Chinese control) belong to India and “we shall give our lives” to take them back. It is revealing that none of India’s ministers or generals has reiterated this assertion in the wake of the India-China standoff.

Contrary to entrenched belief in India, Beijing has never looked at CPEC as a closed project for the exclusive use of China and Pakistan. Indeed, Afghanistan, Iran and the nearby Central Asian republics have shown keen interest in getting connected with CPEC. Nor has China conceptualised CPEC as part of its “malign” strategy to “encircle” India, as several paranoid strategic thinkers in our country tend to believe. The main purpose of CPEC, from Beijing’s perspective, is to reduce the time and cost of transporting goods, oil and natural gas to China (especially the less-developed regions in western China) by circumventing the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea. It is also meant to be an alternative to the busy maritime route through the Straits of Malacca, which may get blocked in the event of an armed conflict between the US and China.

Also read: India Has Known About the Chinese Threat in Ladakh for Years. So Why Are We Unprepared?

As a matter of fact, China had invited India to join CPEC without prejudice to our claim on Jammu & Kashmir. It had even shown willingness to suitably rename the project if New Delhi partnered with Beijing and Islamabad in expanding its scope. Had India joined the renamed CPEC, it would have surely gained land access to Afghanistan through Pakistan, besides the advantage of opening up other old connectivity links with Pakistan itself.

In a significant development, Pakistan on July 13 announced that it would allow Afghanistan to export goods to India using the Wagah border. The decision is part of Islamabad’s commitment under the Pakistan-Afghanistan Transit Trade Agreement. This being the case, is it difficult to envisage Indian exports to Afghanistan — and also India-Pakistan trade — through the same route?

However, the Modi government has cold-shouldered Beijing’s invitation because it wants to have nothing to do with either Pakistan or China in realising its own independent connectivity vision. Which is why, our anti-BRI campaigners touted Chabahar as India’s foreign policy innovation to bypass both Pakistan and China.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in 2016. Photo: PMO/Twitter

Now, this vision has been hit hard by both geography and geopolitics. Last week, Iran decided to start working on the Chabahar-Zahedan rail project on its own. Even though Tehran has, for diplomatic reasons, denied that it has “dropped” India from the project, its actions amount to the same. The reason for keeping India out, according to Iranian experts, is that “New Delhi has squandered the opportunity by effectively siding with the US on sanctions against Iran and failing to make adequate investments in the port development.”

On its part, Indian authorities have revealed that “India is not part of this project as of now, since there is lack of clarity on whether the railway project will attract US sanctions.” They have also hinted that India could join the project “later”.

Why Modi cannot practice ‘geographical untouchability’

That “later” bit is going to complicate matters for India immensely. For it means that even this circuitous path to Afghanistan through Chabahar might get closed for India unless New Delhi agreed to Tehran’s new conditions. What could be those new conditions? The answer to this question brings in the centrality of BRI to Iran’s own future plans for its infrastructure and economic development, which have been so badly stymied by the US sanctions. Chabahar port development as well the rail and road links to it are about to become part of BRI.

This is because Teheran and Beijing are now in the final stages of signing a 25-year agreement for strategic partnership, under which China will invest a whopping $ 400 billion in Iran. Item 7 of the joint statement, issued when Xi Jinping visited Iran in 2016, tells us about its enormous scope. If implemented fully, it will reshape geo-economics and geo-politics in the region. “Relying on their respective strengths and advantages as well as the opportunities provided by the ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ and the ‘21st Century Maritime Silk Road’ … both sides shall expand cooperation and mutual investments in various areas including transportation, railway, ports, energy, industry, commerce and services.”

Also read: Is Pakistan Hurtling Towards a Debt Trap With a String of Hydropower Projects With China?

When Chabahar and its connectivity links come within the ambit of BRI, India will be left with only two unenviable options — either to integrate its own plans to reach Afghanistan within the Iran-China BRI architecture, or to abandon all hopes of connectivity with Kabul – barring, of course, air connectivity. The second option is really no option, because Afghanistan is too important a nation for India to forever remain unconnected with. Furthermore, without Iran’s cooperation, India will never be able to fulfil its (legitimate) aspiration to have a shorter route to Russia and Europe.

North-South-Transport-Corridor map

The fulfilment of this aspiration depends on the implementation of the International North-South Transport Corridor, whose starting point is Chabahar. Furthermore, even INSTC cannot quarantine itself from BRI projects in the Caucasian and Eurasian region. How can India compel INSTC’s member-countries like Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan or Turkey not to connect any BRI project in their own territories with INSTC? The imperatives of connectivity anywhere on Planet Earth abhor such geographical ‘untouchability’.

That India cannot resist geography and treat Pakistan and China as “untouchables” in its connectivity plans can be illustrated with another telling example. The criticality of Pakistan for India’s energy connectivity and energy security is clearly evident from two major gas pipeline initiatives — the 1,814-km Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) project and the 2775-km Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) project (which India has spurned under American pressure). Significantly, China has shown interest in joining TAPI, by building a pipeline from Pakistan to its western border. Both IPI and TAPI not only promote economic development, but also have the potential to become Peace Pipelines for the region. Now, here is a question: Can India object to Pakistan and China deciding to bring their bilateral link to TAPI under BRI? Remember: Turkmenistan, which is the owner and producer of the gas, has already partnered with China under BRI.

China Pakistan Economic Corridor map

Thus, whichever way one looks at it, India cannot sidestep BRI either for the land route or the sea route to Afghanistan and beyond. Modi’s aides may fret and frown about this denouement, but they have only themselves to blame for India’s myopic and self-hurting decision to boycott BRI.

How Modi can correct his mistakes

Does Modi still have a way to rectify his mistakes, which are proving to be so costly for India? Yes, he has. For this, here are four suggestions.

One: Prime Minister Modi should remind himself of a laudable thought he had expressed in his address at the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Qingdao, China, in June 2018. With Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Pakistan’s President Mamnoon Hussain in the audience, Modi had said: “We have again reached a stage where physical and digital connectivity is changing the definition of geography. Therefore, connectivity with our neighbourhood and in the SCO region is our priority.” (Both India and Pakistan became full members of SCO in 2017. And it is only a matter of time before Iran also moves from observer status to full membership.)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mahabalipuram on October 11, 2019. Photo: PTI

If Modi is really sincere in saying that connectivity not only “with our neighbourhood” but also with the entire “SCO region” is India’s “priority”, how can he ignore Pakistan and China, our two largest neighbours? And doesn’t the word “priority” ring hollow when he has come to attach zero priority to normalisation of relations with Pakistan? Therefore, Modi must give up his hawkish and unrealisable goal of taking PoK and Gilgit Baltistan back and, instead, enter into honest talks with Pakistan on a just and workable resolution of the Kashmir issue.

Also read: What Kashmir Has to Do With the India-China Stand-Off in Ladakh

In fact, India joining CPEC and BRI will itself make untying of the Kashmir knot easier. This is because India-Pakistan-China trilateral cooperation will create new economic inter-dependencies in the region, besides promoting prosperity and people-to-people contacts. This non-military and development-based approach is the best guarantor of peace and stability in a region whose people have suffered so much for so long.

Two: One must add here that India-Pakistan-China cooperation, with the addition of Iran and Russia into this cooperation framework, can also usher in peace, stability and prosperity to Afghanistan, whose people have suffered the ravages of war for over four decades. Viewed from this perspective, both the land route and sea route to Afghanistan become complementary, and not remain mutually exclusive. Afghanistan gets access to the Indian Ocean, while simultaneously getting territorially connected to India and South-East Asia.

Three: Modi’s connectivity “priority” can never become a reality if he kowtows to the US policy on China and Iran. The Trump administration has been doing everything it can to coercively “decouple” US-China relations. After the unfortunate standoff at Ladakh, there are also strident voices in India urging the prime minister to similarly “disengage” with China. The Modi government has actually taken some steps in this direction, which have been hailed by many in our strategic and think tank community as necessary for “raising the costs” for China. There is, however, no thought given to the fact that China too can reciprocally “raise the costs” for India. The more Modi leans on the US, and makes India an active member of the US-led Quad security alliance to contain China, the more difficult and distant will India’s connectivity dreams become.

As a matter of fact, even Iran is now “raising the costs” for India. Besides excluding India from the Chabahar-Zahedan rail project, it has also denied India’s ONGC a role in the development of its Farzad-B block gas field. One reason for this action is that inadequate funding by India and its snail-paced implementation of Chabahar port development have riled Iran. But here again we can see how the US sanctions on Iran are hurting India’s interests. Even though India secured a waiver from the US for its port development at Chabahar, the project still suffered delays “because of the time taken by the US Treasury to actually clear the import of heavy equipment such as rail mounted gantry cranes, mobile harbour cranes, etc.” This is a good example of how the US browbeats not only Iran but also India.

The news of a strategic partnership between Tehran and Beijing has made some Indian observers to speculate that Iran will now become a “colony” of China. This is pure hogwash. Iran, which has inherited an ancient and rich civilisation, is a proud nation. It knows how to protect its sovereignty. We Indians should beware of advice that seeks to make India an ally in the anti-Iran game plan of the warmongers in America.

Four: An even bigger reason for Iran’s ire against India is the rise in anti-Muslim violence in our country. After the horrific riots in Delhi in February this year, Tehran condemned India with uncharacteristic harshness, not once but twice. The message for Modi is clear: his politics of polarisation at home is imposing a cost on his foreign policy. If his party and government continue to target Muslims, India in the coming years will suffer a bigger blowback in many Muslim countries in the west and the east.

Pakistan and China must also rectify their mistakes

If these are the do’s and don’ts for India, Pakistan and China also have some obligations for South Asia, Asia and Eurasia to achieve connectivity, cooperation and development in a balanced and win-win manner. As far as Pakistan is concerned, its civilian-military rulers have two obligations. They must give up their “Kashmir Banega Pakistan” obsession, because it is as unrealisable as PoK and GB ever becoming parts of India.

Secondly, they must unequivocally and irreversibly shun the policy of aiding and abetting terrorism against India. After all, this short-sighted policy has boomeranged on Pakistan itself, making it an even bigger victim of terrorism. In their own national self-interest, Pakistan’s rulers in Islamabad and Rawalpindi should work together with India on all those initiatives that promote mutual benefit, mutual trust and mutual security.

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Trust-building is equally an obligation on China. The trust deficit between India and China has widened to an alarming extent after the recent bloody standoff between our troops in Ladakh. When soldiers get killed, any nation is bound to react with outrage. Therefore,  Xi Jinping and his colleagues must know that, by converting India into an adversary, China would be making a “strategic miscalculation” as costly as India would by choosing to become an ally of the US in the latter’s policy to threaten, corner and subdue China.

India’s BSF soldiers stand guard at a checkpoint along a highway leading to Ladakh, at Gagangeer in Kashmir’s Ganderbal district June 17, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Danish Ismail

A big responsibility rests on Xi Jinping to win the hearts and minds of Indian people. True, he has often said that “China’s development does not pose a threat to any country” and that it will “not develop at the expense of other nations”.  He has further affirmed: “No matter how far China develops, it will never seek global hegemony”. He has sought to make “Building a community of shared future for mankind” the signature tune of China’s Rise. All this is fine, but the Indian public continues to remain suspicious about China’s intentions.

Specifically with regard to BRI, Beijing needs to do far more to create confidence in India that its objectives are purely developmental and in no way threaten India’s security and core interests — be it in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Iran or elsewhere.

Actually, China should introspect as to why its assurances are not making the desired impact on India. For example, in his speech at the first Belt and Road Forum summit in Beijing in May 2017, which I attended as a non-official participant from India, Xi Jinping laid out the following praiseworthy perspective on BRI. If China demonstrates through its actions that it is truly committed to his words, then a lot of mistrust and misunderstanding in India towards BRI will melt away. Xi had said:

“We should build the Belt and Road into a road for peace. The ancient silk routes thrived in times of peace, but lost vigor in times of war. The pursuit of the Belt and Road Initiative requires a peaceful and stable environment. We should foster a new type of international relations featuring win-win cooperation; and we should forge partnerships of dialogue with no confrontation and of friendship rather than alliance. All countries should respect each other’s sovereignty, dignity and territorial integrity, each other’s development paths and social systems, and each other’s core interests and major concerns.

“Some regions along the ancient Silk Road used to be a land of milk and honey. Yet today, these places are often associated with conflict, turbulence, crisis and challenge. Such state of affairs should not be allowed to continue. We should foster the vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security, and create a security environment built and shared by all. We should work to resolve hotspot issues through political means, and promote mediation in the spirit of justice. We should intensify counter-terrorism efforts, address both its symptoms and root causes, and strive to eradicate poverty, backwardness and social injustice.

“We should build the Belt and Road into a road of prosperity. Development holds the master key to solving all problems. In pursuing the Belt and Road Initiative, we should focus on the fundamental issue of development, release the growth potential of various countries and achieve economic integration and interconnected development and deliver benefits to all.”

In short, the onus is now on both Modi and Xi Jinping to get the connectivity calculus right. If both India and China adhere to the principle of equality, equal partnership, equal responsibility and mutual learning to achieve mutual benefit and benefit for the world, they will have remained faithful to the wisdom of their great civilisations. Indeed, they will have begun doing ‘yoga’ in the right way. In Sanskrit, yoga means “to join, connect, unite or yoke together”. An India-China yogic approach to connectivity will surely bring peace and harmony to our troubled world and mitigate its myriad tragedies.

Sudheendra Kulkarni served as an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and is the founder of the ‘Forum for a New South Asia – Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation’. He is the author of Music of the Spinning Wheel: Mahatma Gandhi’s Manifesto for the Internet Age and tweets @SudheenKulkarni.