Shanti Path, the splendorous boulevard which houses key members New Delhi’s diplomatic community, is in a state of eager anticipation over the Republic Day guest list this year. The cause for such unprecedented ferment is Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, President of Kazakhstan, one of five Central Asian heads of state who will collectively be chief guests at the grand parade and related events on January 26.
Republic Day chief guests come and go by rote every year. Unless there is novelty attached to a chief guest, such as United States President Barack Obama in 2015 or former Viceroy Louis Mountbatten in 1964, these guests do not cause any flutter in Chanakyapuri, the national capital’s diplomatic enclave.
This year, however, every move by Tokayev will be carefully watched by foreign diplomats and international correspondents in the capital while he is in public view on Rajpath, the arterial road along which the Republic Day Parade winds its long way and at his other ceremonial events. Every twitch of his eyebrows, the furrows on his forehead and his finger movements will be analysed for Tokayev’s state of mind and reported back by embassies in India to their headquarters.
Since the Republic Day Parade will be the Kazakhstan President’s first in-person public appearance since quelling a rebellion at home, his behaviour in New Delhi will indicate his state of mind, his sure-footedness, or lack thereof. Just like how Communist leaders such as Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong were minutely watched many decades ago for political clues behind their Iron and Bamboo Curtains.
Had the rebellion against Tokayev succeeded, it would have had profound implications not just for Central Asia, but for the world. At the time of writing, word from Nur-Sultan is that Tokayev will join his regional counterparts in New Delhi in 12 days, if only to prove that he is firmly in charge.
Unlike impoverished Ukraine or Georgia, which are low value pawns on the chessboard of the new Cold War, Kazakhstan is the king itself which can checkmate the United States not only in Central Asia, but broadly in all of Eurasia. Kazakhstan has virtually no poverty and its plentiful, untapped mineral and energy resources lying under a vast landmass of soil ensures that many future generations of Kazakhs will enjoy prosperity.
This was the rationale behind inviting Tokayev’s predecessor and the founding President of sovereign Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, to be Republic Day Chief Guest in 2009. That invitation produced a civil nuclear deal with Kazakhstan. India was then desperately looking for supplies of uranium for nuclear reactors, and Nazarbayev sent planeloads of uranium when he went back to Almaty.
This time the roles are reversed. Tokayev will be looking for India’s support in his fight to fend off a colour revolution in his country: the kind that the US has attempted in several former Soviet states to wean them away from Moscow’s orbit. Cleverly, India is holding its horses, and is hoping to make the most of Tokayev’s presence in New Delhi instead of rushing to support him. “As a close and friendly partner of Kazakhstan, we look forward to an early stabilisation of the situation,” said a spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) on January 10.
That India will play hard to get, and will bargain for the best outcome for itself from the presence of Central Asian leaders — all of whom support Tokayev — is obvious from portions of the MEA statement, which are non-committal: “We express our deepest condolences to families of innocent victims who have lost lives in the violence.”
Both the Kazakh government and the protesters who want regime change have indulged in violence. So India’s words could cut both ways. Washington would like New Delhi to go along with it and cold-shoulder Moscow on Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. The decision to have the five leaders from Central Asia, whose security is underwritten by Russia, at the January 26 celebrations is a demonstration of India’s strategic autonomy.
Key aides to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who not long ago, described Russia as a “declining power” and wondered during several off-the-record meetings how India should deal with such a power, have been reassessing their options and redrawing their strategic calculus. Despite a fascination for the US, shorn of the bluff and bluster of Donald Trump, actions by his successor, US President Joe Biden, have repeatedly demonstrated that it is the US, which is a declining power.
Not just the US, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which supplements Washington’s muscle power abroad, lost its bite during the Trump presidency, and is now restricted to mere barking. Contrast this to how the de facto Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) sprang into military action as soon as Tokayev asked for CSTO support to prevent destabilisation of his legitimate government.
Tokayev alleged that non-Kazakh speaking “terrorists” had infiltrated the protest movement, and set fire to the Presidential Palace and the city father’s office in the capital, among other acts of arson. The CSTO is a military alliance of six post-Soviet republics.
Preservation of the status quo in Kazakhstan in favour of Russia was the CSTO’s first military action, and was reminiscent of several Soviet interventions in the seven decades of Communist rule in the Kremlin. But it was not the only recent action by Russian President Vladimir Putin in reasserting Soviet style multipolarity in global affairs. Putin is in the driving seat on Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, all part of the former Soviet Union. He restored order in Syria, and is now key to the global oil market. Putin is promising more of the old Soviet style diplomacy to the world.
K P Nayar has extensively covered West Asia and reported from Washington as a foreign correspondent for 15 years.Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.