New Delhi: India could gain full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as early as next year, according to power minister Sushilkumar Shinde, who represented the country at its summit in Russia last week.

Power equations: Sushil Kumar Shinde. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint.

“They are considering it. We are presently an observer," said Shinde.

A report in the Hindu newspaper earlier this month had said the 7 November St Petersburg heads of government summit would consider providing full membership to India, apart from upgrading Afghanistan to observer status and making Turkey a dialogue partner. Later reports, however, said there was scant progress on these issues.

Shinde’s optimism has been greeted with scepticism by officials in the know of the matter.

“We have applied for full membership of the SCO and the application has been under consideration for a while," said an official close to development, who didn’t want to be named. “I think it is far-fetched to say India will become an SCO member by June next year."

Another official said India gaining full membership in 2012 was unlikely because of “the processes involved".

When asked to comment, Vishnu Prakash, spokesman for the foreign ministry said, “India has already conveyed its willingness to play a larger role in the SCO." He did not directly refer to India’s membership plans.

Becoming a full member is also a function of the rivalry between India and China, according to former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh.

“The internal politics of the SCO today is dominated by China, and China is not keen to have India on board," he said. “This is because China feels its interests in the region will be stymied by India’s presence."

The world’s two most-populous countries and fastest-growing major economies are competing for strategic and economic space in the resource and oil and gas rich region of Central Asia. India has been trying to regain the influence it used to have in the region when it was part of the erstwhile Soviet Union, with which New Delhi had good relations. China has been seeking to increase its footprint in the area, Indian analysts said.

The SCO was founded in 2001 in the Chinese city of Shanghai by the leaders of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Belarus and Sri Lanka are dialogue partners. The group’s leaders have identified terrorism, separatism and extremism as some of the main challenges facing member countries. Over the past few years, the organization’s activities have expanded to include increased military cooperation, intelligence sharing, and counterterrorism.

A report in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper said Pakistan, which was represented at the SCO meeting last week by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, has also applied for full SCO membership.