Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the new parliament building of Afghanistan on Friday during his maiden trip to Kabul. The remarkably beautiful building, built at a cost of $90 million, on the opposite side of the ruined Darul Aman Palace at the capital's outskirt, is India's gift to the conflict-ridden country and a manifestation of its commitment to help build a sustainable and vibrant democracy in Afghanistan.
The first Indian prime minister to address the Afghan parliament, Modi made it clear, "You know that India is here to lay the foundations of future, not light the flame of conflict; to rebuild lives, not destroy a nation."
Since 2002, India has stood by Afghanistan and helped build several infrastructure projects as part of its promised development assistance programme of over $2 billion. The programme was initiated by the NDA government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, but was continued with greater enthusiasm under the UPA regime. In fact, a block in the new building has been named after Vajpayee as "Atal Block".
The Indian prime minister is perhaps the first foreign leader to be received with so much of warmth not just by the government but the Afghan people in general. Although all the main roads in Kabul have been blocked, no one seems to be complaining. On social media, Afghans are thanking India for all the development works it has undertaken. Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who had famously called India Afghanistan's "best friend", was also sitting in the audience. Modi later met Karzai and the chief executive officer (CEO) of Afghanistan, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, as well as Indians who are working in Kabul.
Although, Afghanistan had signed its first bilateral strategic pact with India in 2011, there was not much headway largely because India was apprehensive of angering Islamabad, leading to media reports that Kabul may want to renegotiate its deal with New Delhi. When I asked this pointed question to the visiting Afghan deputy foreign minister, Hekmat Khalil Karzai last month, he said India and Afghanistan shared time-tested relationships but the strategic partnership needed to materialise.
Urging for greater "security and political cooperation", he added with satisfaction that he had "extensive discussions on the wish list", and there is "nothing but consensus" on the subject. Before Modi's visit, India had also given the promised three Mi-25 attack helicopters to Kabul which may not, however, be enough for security in the strife-torn country, but is a very significant step ahead.
Amrullah Saleh, the outspoken former spy chief of Afghanistan, tweeted this on December 23:
India gives us helicpters & a parliament buldng, means of flight & debate 4 life. The OTHER shows us to grave. Who should we go with? Easy.— Amrullah Saleh (@AmrullahSaleh2) December 23, 2015
The reference to "other" in this case was obviously a reference to Pakistan, disliked by most in the government as well as on the streets in Afghanistan largely because of its direct support to the Taliban.
New impetus in bilateral relations
In the last one year alone, Modi has made 27 trips to 25 countries before visiting Kabul on his way back from Moscow. Since the new Indian Afghan governments took over in 2014, both in Kabul and New Delhi, the decade of warmth between two out-going heads of states - Manmohan Singh and Hamid Karzai - took a beating in the wake of Afghan president Ashraf Ghani warming up to Islamabad in the hope of buying peace with the Taliban. During his visit to New Delhi in April, earlier this year, Ghani sought to dispel India's concern as he hoped to not fight a "proxy war" and instead become a "roundabout" for regional trade. The prospects of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline is consequently generating the maximum enthusiasm in Afghanistan.
New Delhi understands that its options are limited and hence it has not particularly opposed any possibility of peace talks with Pakistan. Modi's visit to Kabul late in the year may help rejuvenate the bilateral relationship with Afghanistan which is going through one of its worst phases since 2002 as the Afghan forces are not yet fully capable of tackling the security menace. In fact, after the Kunduz debacle few months back, the Taliban are on an upsurge in Helmand now.
Afghanistan needs the support of friends like India more now than ever. "We know that Afghanistan's success will require the cooperation and support of each of its neighbours. And, all of us in the region - India, Pakistan, Iran and others - must unite, in trust and cooperation, behind this common purpose and in recognition of our common destiny," Modi noted.
India's soft power in Afghanistan
Afghanistan, in fact, represents a victory of India's "soft power" and its efforts have been appreciated by even common Afghans. In July, Afghans, in large numbers, brought out celebratory processions thanking India for the $300 million worth Salma Dam in Herat province. A few days ago, the Indian cabinet approved the revised cost of the dam to $268 million. The project is expected to be completed by next year and has already become popular as the "India-Afghanistan Friendship Dam".
In 2014, the then Indian minister of external affairs Salman Khursid inaugurated the first national agriculture university of Afghanistan, a major capacity-building project backed by India, in Kandahar, ill-famous in India for the Air India plane hijack. India also runs the Indira Gandhi Children's hospital in Kabul and has, in fact, undertaken a number of large and medium infrastructure projects in the past one decade, including the 218km road from Zaranj to Delaram, for better connectivity from the Iranian border, the 220kV DC transmission line from Pul-e-Khumri to Kabul and three other substations. Once the Chahbahar port opens in Iran, the highway will also help cut Afghanistan's dependence on the Karachi port for sea connectivity.
There are many Afghan refugees in India and the families of several high profile politicians, including that of Abdullah Abdullah live in New Delhi. Each year, India gives 1,000 scholarships to Afghan students to study in various universities and colleges across the country. Prime Minister Modi announced additional scholarships for 500 children of martyred Afghan security personnel, reiterating that the current schemes too will continue.
India also trains Afghan security personnel, government officials, media professionals, parliamentarians, and others. And many Afghans come for treatment to India, particularly to New Delhi. They go back, appreciating India's efforts and often contrast it with Pakistan. Although the largest number of Afghan refugees still live in Pakistan, it is seen as a hostile brother who keeps fuelling insurgency.
I experienced this first-hand last year when I was in Afghanistan during the presidential election. Owing to my wheatish complexion, many people were not sure if I were from Pakistan or India and would often enquire about my identity. Once assured, they would open their hearts and go out of the way to make me comfortable. In fact, I was stopped at least twice by security agencies, but no sooner than they saw the dark blue colour of my passport, their tone would change.
Seeing me clicking photographs in the uptown Shahr-e-Nau in Kabul, a local intelligence officer had rudely asked me my identity and why I was clicking photographs. Once he realised that I was an Indian, he said, "Forgive me brother, I thought you are a Pakistani... I too studied in India."
When I had visited Kabul in March, 2014 the Parliament building was still under construction having missed two deadlines since its inception in 2009. The security guard, standing outside the ruined "Palace of Peace", told me in broken Urdu, after realising that I was an Indian, "India has been helping us selflessly and we are grateful."
Besides assistance programmes, Indian films and TV serials continue to remain India's biggest soft power tools in Afghanistan, although they now face stiff competition from Turkish serials. Shah Rukh Khan and Ajay Devgn are as popular in Kabul as in India and taxi drivers never fail to point out the hillock where some of the shots for the Amitabh Bachchan-starrer: the 1992 blockbuster Khuda Gawah were shot. Modi quoted from the song of the film Zanjeer, where "Hindi cinema's most famous Pathan character", Sher Khan sings: "Yaari hai iman mera, Yaar meri zindangi".
Modi also reminded about the historical linkages that India and Afghanistan share from Gandhari in Mahabharata to the first Indian government-in-exile to Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan - the "Frontier Gandhi". Both Ghani and he also referred to the story of "Kabuliwala" made famous across the world by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. "In the timeless Buddhist symbols of Aynak and Bamiyan and in the majestic monuments of Delhi, in our culture and art, in language and literature, food and festivals, we see the imprint of our timeless relations," Modi said.
India as possible model
Afghanistan remains an ethnically divided country and after allegations of corruptions in the 2014 presidential election, a "national unity government" was established with a new position of CEO, which would be converted to the office of the prime minister after constitutional amendments, according to the US-brokered deal between Ghani and Abdullah.
The pluralist nature of the Indian society and democratic polity, despite all its shortcomings, offer a possible model and guide to Afghanistan. Several Afghan civil society members have expressed their appreciation referring to the fact that despite Hindu majority, India has had several presidents, vice presidents, chief justices, as well as several ministers professing Islam, including the current vice president Hamid Ansari, who incidentally represented India in Turkmenistan at the "groundbreaking" ceremony for the TAPI pipeline.
Consequently, the beautiful new Parliament building, built in a fusion of Mughal and modern architecture with a large dome, parliament halls, library, ands so on is a symbolic gift of democracy to Afghanistan; and in Prime Minister Modi's words, "On behalf of 1.25 billion friends in India, in admiration for your achievements, in gratitude for your friendship and in solidarity for your future."