Prime Minister Narendra Modi's grand Central Asian reach out is bearing fruit. Come October, Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev will make his first visit to India. On the cards will be business, people to people contact and, of course, closer strategic links.
In August, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Tashkent in her three Central Asian countries trip. And she is not the only one. India and Uzbekistan have never seen such a hectic spate of official visits. The Uzbek foreign minister was in India earlier while the deputy prime minister has made two visits in the past three months. The last time he was in India, he came with a large business delegation hoping to attract investment. Minister of Commerce and Industry Suresh Prabhu also visited Uzbekistan to expand India's economic reach in the country.
This engagement—in the past year, the president and the prime minister, too, have met at the sidelines of SCO—is in stark contrast to deep freeze the relationship had done into. When President Islam Karimov—who ruled Uzbekistan for decades—died in September 2016, India had failed to send a representative.
“Since the new president took over in December 2016, there have been several domestic changes that have been helpful and supportive [for a closer relationship],'' said former diplomat Ashok Sajjanhar. “The possibility and the potential is greater.''
While India and Uzbekistan have had long civilisation links, diplomatic relations were established only in 1991. For India, Central Asia, for years, has been dominated largely by Iran. There have been other reach outs to Tajikistan, but for the most part, Central Asia had been ignored. However, in the past two years, Modi has tried to fill this gap. He visited Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in 2015. And there has been a spate of visits by leaders from Central Asia since then. Swaraj's three-nation tour of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan has certainly helped.
Soon Mumbai will be just four hours away from Tashkent. Uzbekistan Airways will link the two cities by the end of October. This linking of the two cities is just one aspect of India coming closer to Uzbekistan. And hopefully, this is just the beginning.