Hotelier Lalit Malhotra sits in his spacious office in New Delhi's Surya Hotel, looking like just another well-groomed, well-informed Indian businessman with hospitality interests in India and overseas. But Malhotra is more than that. He's the consul general in India for Tajikistan, the tiny central Asian republic whose border with Afghanistan makes it a launching pad for the anti-Taliban allies' raids, suddenly drawing it into the international limelight. Malhotra is Tajikistan's only representative in a region of Asia stretching from the Middle East to Japan -- and has been for the last seven years.
Tajikistan is 90% Sunni Muslim -- the same Islamic denomination that dominates the Taliban, Afghanistan's ruling government. But Malhotra says the Tajiks have a vastly different culture and history from their neighbors. At this point, they mainly want business management skills so that they can become entrepreneurs and move their fledgling, dependent nation out of the shock of being separated from the Soviet Union.
Malhotra spoke to BusinessWeek India Bureau Chief Manjeet Kripalani in New Delhi the day before the U.S. and Britain began bombing Afghanistan. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:
Q: What have the Tajiks offered the anti-Taliban alliance?
A: They have offered the allies' air bases [and] intelligence, but we don't have an army so we can't offer manpower. But many in the Northern Alliance are Tajiks.
Q: What does Tajikistan need and want right now?
A: The U.S. broke Russia, but what have they done for the [Central Asian] republics? There is no training, no school, and no business coursework offered by the U.S. The World Bank money goes to consultants. What does the country get? Very little. The Tajiks don't have negotiating skills, they can't bargain with America, but they can request. In return for their help in this war, America can help give Tajikistan business schools and entrepreneurship skills, so that the people can learn how to help themselves in this new world of market economies. That's when their real success will come.
Q: What is Tajikistan like politically?
A: Tajikistan is the true democracy among the Central Asian republics. Unlike Uzbekistan [and others] which have repressed the fundamentalists, the Tajiks have taken the fundamentalists along with them and included them in the government. Tajik policies and plans are the best in Central Asia. They have kept their heritage. Though they were ruled by Russia, the Tajiks still think like kings, like the one-time rulers of Central Asia that they were.
Q: How much influence do the Muslim fundamentalists have there?
A: The big problem is the Taliban. They are trying to influence the fundamentalists [in Tajikistan], so the Tajiks had to support the [anti-Taliban] Northern Alliance. They recognize only Rabbani as the President of Afghanistan. Rabbani is a Tajik. The Tajiks are peace-loving, happy-go-lucky folk. They are at home with the Persian poets, speak Farsi like the Persians, and celebrate Navroze, the Zoroastrian new year more than Eid, the Muslim festival. They can do anything, but they can't fight.
Q: How do the Tajiks feel about the Taliban government in Afghanistan?
A: They [the Tajiks] turned from communism to a free market but don't have money or entrepreneurial skills. They run on the diktat of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.... The Tajiks are a very secular people. I, a Hindu, have been appointed to represent a Muslim nation -- that's how secular they are.... [But] if they are not helped now, they could turn into other Talibans.
Q: And businesswise, what benefits does Tajikistan offer?
A: The Central Asian republics are rich in oil, gas, gold. For instance, Turkmenistan wants to supply gas to India, but it is landlocked and can't do it unless they pass through Pakistan and Afghanistan. Now they can't do it.
Once this fighting stops, then there will be a $100 billion annual trade between East Asia and the Central Asian republics -- gas, oil, textiles, gold, and pharmaceuticals from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrghzystan. Also tourism. These are the world's most beautiful and unspoiled places. These countries were the old Silk Route. In 70 years, Russia gave them infrastructure, power, rail, education. Tajikistan has 94% literacy rates [down from 99.8% eight years ago when the Russians left, but still high].
Q: What has been India's role in Tajikistan?
A: India has been giving the Tajiks help. Tajiks love the Indians. They love Indian movies and movie stars. India has built a hospital in Dushanbe and also at the southern borders, from where they dispense medicine.... No one bothered much about Tajikistan. But now, suddenly, it is the center of attention, the center of the solution.