It isn’t every day that the most interesting foreign news in Indian newspapers is published on the «Tenders» pages. But there it was one day in October: a notice from the Central Public Works Department of Delhi, inviting applications from Indian companies for desks, tables and — more strangely — «chairs of different types including built-in cupboards,» to supply an under-construction «House of the People.»
That house of the people is the new parliament building of Afghanistan, which the Indian government is constructing in Kabul as a gift to the Afghan people for a crucial moment in their history: the 2015 parliamentary elections. Work on the building, on an 84-acre plot on the city outskirts, began in 2008, about the same time that Afghanistan began to take its own steps toward building a multi-tiered system of representative government. The edifice will be ready next year, in time to host the victorious candidates of the parliamentary elections that will follow the presidential and provincial elections scheduled for April 5, 2014. It will be an imposing physical manifestation, in the white marble of Herat and red granite from India, of Afghanistan’s aspirations to move toward a peaceful democracy.
The investment of $178 million in building a house for democracy in Afghanistan might be India’s most creative foreign-policy move in the last decade. To be sure, India is acting in its own long-term interests in the region by doing so. With North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops scheduled to withdraw over the next year, leaving Afghanistan to its elected rulers, the country will be more free than it has been in the past to engage with its neighbors on its own terms. And India has much more to offer to economic reconstruction than Pakistan, which lies between the two countries.
At a conference in Kabul last year, the Indian politician Salman Khurshid spoke of Afghanistan regaining its historical role «of a land-bridge between South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East and Eurasia.» India’s trade and influence in South and Central Asia would be enhanced significantly by access to and through Afghanistan. In the short-term, fears that the departure of the international forces might lead to an upsurge in violence from the Taliban and Pakistan-backed groups — and possibly attacks on the building site — has made the parliament project ever more urgent.
In June, Charu Sudan Kasturi of the Telegraph provided a vivid picture of the troubles of Indian workers and companies working on the building:
At the site for the new parliament on central Kabul’s Darulaman Road, labourers stop work at 5pm, unwilling to test their fears in the dark. Local skilled labour is hard to find, and Indians aren’t easy to cajole into taking up the risk of working in a hostile environment. The Indian embassy in Kabul receives frequent intelligence inputs warning of possible attacks, and contractors and workers stop work temporarily. Some Indian officials complain that the Afghan government “keeps changing the specifications” for the parliament complex. And tensions with Islamabad mean that raw material that could be sourced from Pakistan needs to be brought all the way from India or Iran.
Darulaman Road isn’t the only site where Indians — sometimes in search of the higher salaries available in conflict zones — are braving perilous conditions to work on a host of projects aimed at «peace-building in Afghanistan.» A host of Indian companies and nongovernmental organizations have set up operations over the last decade, working on infrastructure and small-business projects set up by the Indian government.
In 2008, the Indian government finished work on a 218-kilometer (135-mile) road from Delaram in north-east Afghanistan to Zaranj on the Iran border, opening up the landlocked country to the sea via Iran’s Chabahar port. It also invited the Indian NGO SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association) to work on projects to train Afghan women to set up their own small businesses. Dozens of Afghan public servants now arrive in Delhi every year to take short-term courses in public administration, and they often stop by Delhi’s «Little Kabul» neighborhood.
There’s no guarantee, of course, that a future Afghan government will be as open to cooperation with India as the current one. Nor is there any guarantee that in the aftermath of the withdrawal of U.S. forces next year, there will be a set of legislators elected in free and fair elections in 2015 to take their places in the new parliament building. And those skeptical of India’s recent Afghanistan policy, such as the influential editor of the Indian Express, Shekhar Gupta, have argued that the risks for India in Afghanistan are too high given Pakistan’s hostility, and that it might just make better sense to «leave Af to Pak.» It is too early to know whether India’s recent investments in Afghanistan’s reconstruction will be seen as pragmatic or unrealistic. In light of the recent record of other countries in Afghanistan, though, India’s program rates quite high when it comes to measuring reality against the rhetoric.
Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. His novel Arzee the Dwarf is published by New York Review Books.