The Kosygin Plan

December 22, 2018

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The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

NEARLY 50 years ago, Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin floated in Pakistan what came to be known as the Kosygin Plan. He said in May 1969 “the Soviet Union would like to see Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and other states of this region developing mutual relations of friendship and constructive cooperation. The Soviet Union will do its utmost to facilitate this”.

None were taken in, for the core of the plan was known to Pakistani and Indian leaders. It envisaged road-building to promote regional cooperation; an overland trade route running from the Soviet Union to India through Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The reasons for its failure are relevant half a century later, when road-building has acquired greater importance in this region. It was first proposed by Kosygin tentatively at Tashkent in 1966 to president Ayub Khan and prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and was renewed to all the three countries in 1969. Kosygin made the proposal to prime minister Indira Gandhi on May 5, 1979; to Afghanistan later that month; and to president Yahya Khan when he arrived in Pakistan. It was to be part of an Asian highway running through a dozen countries.

Recent ventures in road-building require a mature approach.

Pakistan’s instant reaction was negative. On July 10, the Foreign Office spokesman said “the proposal has little economic advantage for Pakistan”. He hit the nail on the head with resounding effect: “The Russians are now so exercised over their conflict with China that they will go to any length to isolate it from their neighbours.”

It was a hard decision for Pakistan. For, to India’s chagrin, Pakistan had received from the Soviet Union 100 TU-54 tanks in addition to 50 delivered as the first instalment. Kosygin envisaged a conference in Kabul in which Pakistan, India, Iran, Turkey, Nepal, the host Afghanistan and the sponsor, USSR, would participate.

The lid over this seemingly innocuous idea was blown in June 1969 by Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev when he publicly proposed “a system of collective security in Asia”. Clearly, the Kosygin Plan for regional cooperation and road-building was part of the Brezhnev Plan for Asian security and both were aimed at isolating China.

Even after the Indo-Soviet Treaty (1971) Indira Gandhi rejected the Brezhnev Plan when he came to India. Both plans fell, leaving an important lesson on the nexus between road-building and politics. Narrow political interests of any side will spell the defeat of its plans for connectivity. It would be as short-sighted to allow narrow political interests to override the demands of connectivity.

Mahnaz Z. Ispahani has brilliantly analysed both factors in Roads and Rivals: The Politics of Access in the Border Lands of Asia. She demonstrates the havoc which the tunnel vision of the Great Powers can wreak. For instance, “neither the Afghan government nor the Soviet Union was overly attentive to the construction of small but important roads connecting rural areas with urban centres and with one another. Given its complex, fragmented terrain and its dispersed population, Afghanistan required numerous cheap, low-volume roads. For similar reasons, these roads were costly to construct. Highways ... were even costlier. The efforts of both the Soviet Union and the United States gave Afghanistan an excellent national highway system, but the country remained devoid of minor routes. What few rural roads were constructed were below standard, and certain towns and areas ... were not even connected to the main trunk routes”.

Dr Ispahani points out that “in the developing world, where colonial rule has been and gone, leaving a legacy of arbitrary territorial division and a physical infrastructure tailored to imperial rivalries rather than local economic and political needs, where diverse peoples and forms of social organisation have been bound together, with few resources, little technology, and on terrain that militates against movement, the story of routes and anti-routes can map the ways in which states trade off their interests in power and in progress, and can trace the course of the rivalries and partnership that shape a region’s geopolitics”.

Recent ventures in road-building require a mature approach by all — the sponsor and participants alike. China’s Belt and Road Initiative has received less study than it deserves. India-Pakistan differences cast their shadow on such projects, especially with a Modi government in power.

Few in India note the possibilities of building on the success of the accord with Pakistan in the Kartarpur corridor for Sikh pilgrims, from Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur in Pakistan to Dera Baba Nanak’s shrine in India’s Gurdaspur district.

This agreement should provoke some thinking on two matters — ‘religious tourism’ across the India-Pakistan boundary and releasing Kashmir from the imprisonment which its closed ancient routes entail.

The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

Published in Dawn, December 22nd, 2018