They dined and wined on caviar and vodka for two days in the sparse highland where the earth met the sky. On the third, the Russian told the Englishman, “Get out of here.” The Englishman beat a long and hasty retreat.

The Russian was Captain Mikhail Efremovich Yanov, commander of the Pamirs “flying detachment” of Cossack horsemen. The Englishman was Sir Francis Younghusband, tester of the frontiers of British colonial power in India. They met in the village of Bozai-Gombuz in Afghanistan’s Wakhan Tract. The year was 1891. The “Great Game” had begun.

Cut to, and contrast in, 2018.

As they walked on the banks of the East Lake in Wuhan, China, last week, a Chinese group reportedly played the Bollywood oldie “Tu, tu hai wahi dil ne jise apna kahan” (You are the one the heart says is mine). India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and China’s President Xi Jinping promised famously after that “informal summit” on April 27-April 28 to collaborate on a joint economic project in Afghanistan. The project has not been identified.

“The two leaders were clear that we have converging interests, and we have respective visions of domestic and foreign policy,” India’s Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said in delightful diplomatese after the summit.

Interests converge in a Pamir Knot

The Wakhan Tract, where the Russian and the Englishman met 127 years ago, is a sliver of land bounded by the Pamirs to the north and the Karakoram to the south. It juts out of Afghanistan’s northern Badakshan province through Tajikistan and what is now Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and touches, just touches, China.

The Wakhan Corridor is 12.87 kms at its narrowest. India does not recognise Pakistan-occupied Kashmir that, post 1947, borders the Wakhan, and thus India, in its view, has a frontier with Afghanistan at Wakhan.

At its narrowest, it is narrower than the Siliguri Corridor through which the Indian mainland is tenuously connected to the Indian North East. Seven months before the Modi-Xi summit, and for 70-odd days, Indian troops had stepped into Doklam, territory claimed by both Bhutan and China, to thwart a perceived threat to the Chicken’s Neck in North Bengal.

A member of the Modi ministry who is a former Indian Army chief has pointed to the comparative vulnerabilities of chicken necks. Sitting in his official South-West Delhi quarter in June 2012, just out of uniform for four days and in short sleeves and chappals that defied the easiness of the eye, he told this correspondent the tract in the Pamirs could well be the epicentre of terrorism in the region. General Vijay Kumar Singh (retired) is now minister of state for external affairs. He said in 2012 that his primary objective after leaving service was to complete his PhD thesis. It was on “Fundamentalism in Afghanistan and the Geo Strategic Significance of the Wakhan Corridor”. (He has since completed it and been awarded the degree by Bhopal’s Barkatullah University).

China, already the largest foreign investor in Afghanistan, has undertaken one of its largest economic projects in the Wakhan. Singh said China definitely intends to revive the disused Wakhjir Pass that was part of the Silk Route over the Pamirs at the point where it crests over from Afghanistan to China. He said China was also probably building a tunnel through the mountains. In 2012, China was yet to announce its One Belt One Road project or the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

“It is an outflanking move. India risks losing the influence it has in Afghanistan because of a China-Pakistan link that is getting stronger and is seen in evidence here,” he said.

A couple of years later, just before the Modi administration took over in 2014, Ajit Doval was speaking to a discreet gathering of think-tankers. Doval, who is currently the national security advisor, headed the Vivekananda International Foundation at the time. “It is important to not forget that India has a frontier with Afghanistan at Wakhan,” he said. Implied in that statement was the “unfinished agenda” of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. India’s Parliament has resolved that all of Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of the country. It does not recognise Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, which, post-1947, borders the Wakhan.

Flashback: Christmas in Kabul

In the economic projects that make up the One Belt One Road, China is cutting through not just complex topography but also the rigidities of history and geopolitics. Its invitation – if that is what it is – to India to participate in one such project in Afghanistan will tear down New Delhi’s closely held convictions. By accepting and agreeing to such participation, the Modi administration is cutting a fine balance.

Talking and visiting Afghanistan is fraught with a certain nervousness for Narendra Modi in an election year. On Christmas day in 2015, he left Kabul after meeting Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Modi had just been photographed in the backdrop of two Russian-made Mi-25 helicopter gunships that India had gifted Afghanistan.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul on December 25, 2015. (Credit: Reuters)

India is now planning to fund a few more gunships for the Afghan forces. The gifting of the gunships marked a change in India’s Afghan policy. Till then, India was committed only to “non-lethal” supplies – aid, electricity stations and dams and a Parliament house. The gifting of the gunships followed the overrunning by the Taliban of an India-built road in Afghanistan’s southwest.

The Zaranj-Delaram highway that the Indian military utility, the Border Roads Organisation, had built, despite loss of life and limb, connected to the “Garland expressway” that was to ring through Afghanistan’s major urban centres. India was hoping that it would also help skirt Pakistan’s trade-and-transit blockade and send supplies to Afghanistan through Iran’s Chabahar port. From Chabahar, cutting through contentious Baluchistan, the goods would reach Zaranj. That has failed though New Delhi is re-investing in Chabahar.

But back to Modi’s Kabul trip and what Afghanistan can do to prime ministerial political psychology. On a whim that same Christmas day, Modi “dropped by” Lahore on his way back to New Delhi to wish Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on his birthday.

Militant attacks on Indian security installations in Pathankot in Punjab and Uri in Jammu and Kashmir and the Indian Army’s “surgical strikes” across the Line of Control followed in 2016.

Drop-ins during Christmas can be as fickle as meetings in domed villages named Bozai-Gumbuz in sparse highlands named Wakhan. Corridors created to keep ambitious powers apart over caviar and vodka and Bollywood oldies end in games like Chinese Checkers.

Sujan Dutta is a journalist. His Twitter handle is @reportersujan.