Updated: December 25, 2015 11:26:09 pm
Over three decades ago, a warm hug between Indira Gandhi and Fidel Castro captured the importance of India in the global comity of nations, and the special place it held for many countries around the world. That Non-Aligned Summit in New Delhi in the spring of 1983 was attended by 93 countries — and the leaders of 55 African and Asian nations assembled at Vigyan Bhawan sent out a powerful message to the rest of the world.
Thirty-two years on, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is hosting 54 African nations for the third India-Africa Forum Summit. Thursday’s photo-op — maybe even a few selfies — is likely to see the Prime Minister in the company of at least 40 heads of state or government, all sporting bright kurtas and jackets.
If 1983 was Indira’s signal as the leader of the Non-Aligned block, 2015 will be about Modi’s positioning of India as the preferred partner of Africa.
Only three countries have summits with Africa — the US, China and Japan. The US hosted 47 African leaders (and 50 counties) in 2014 in Washington DC, China hosted 40 leaders (and 48 countries) in 2006 in Beijing, and Japan hosted 37 leaders (and 49 countries) in 2013 in Yokohama.
India joins this club now. Modi has talked about India and Africa having been part of the same landmass once — and India’s unflinching support for African national struggles against colonialism has over the decades earned for it an enormous dividend of goodwill.
And yet, the historical ties and ideological affinity began to take the shape of a concrete outreach only after 1990, after India liberalised its economy, and its trade engagement with the world increased. According to a 2012 study by the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, between 2000 and 2009, the volume of trade between India and Africa increased more than 700 per cent — while Africa fed India’s demand for oil and other raw materials, Indian exports to Africa more than doubled. Indian investment in the services, manufacturing and infrastructure sectors in Africa has been led by the private sector, and the government has played a significant role through state-owned companies, the extension of lines of credit, and active diplomacy.
There were three broad reasons for the increased Indian interest in Africa. One, the 2012 study said, securing cheap energy and strategic raw materials on a longterm basis was an economic and political imperative. Two, Africa had emerged as an important market for Indian goods and services. Three, India had decided to lay a strategic claim over the Indian Ocean region as its sphere of influence.
While India decided to move, it was hemmed in initially by the lack of capacity. Until 2003, the Ministry of External Affairs had only one joint secretary rank official dealing with all of Africa. Now, three joint secretary rank officials, with full-fledged divisions, conduct India’s foreign policy with Africa.
According to South Block officials, the Indian engagement with Africa is, unlike that of China and western powers, “neither exploitative nor prescriptive”. State-driven Chinese firms are known to employ their own workforce to extract minerals or build infrastructure projects, while the western countries often put in “prescriptive” preconditions such as accountability and transparency in their dealings with Africa.
But while India likes to be seen as falling in neither category, it does have its own issues in dealings in Africa.
In the agricultural sector, for example, Indian companies are involved in longterm leases of land, which are controversial because most of the benefits accrue to the state and the companies — not to local inhabitants. This has sparked concerns about Africa’s food sovereignty, the protection of land rights for African farmers, and the displacement of farmers from their own land.
Then, there is the issue of fake medicines being allegedly sourced from India. While Indian companies have consistently denied supplying fake drugs, a perception has taken root in some parts of Africa that while “fake goods are from China, fake medicines are from India”.
India needs, therefore, to focus on presenting itself as a “preferred partner” for Africa. Compared to China, India remains a relatively small trading partner to African countries — according to International Monetary Fund data, India’s share of African countries’ total international trade (including intra-regional trade) was 6 per cent in 2010, as compared to 17 per cent for China, and 3 per cent for Brazil.
African countries are seen to value their independence and autonomy, and look for partners who do not impose their agenda on them. India could benefit by giving more strategic autonomy to its African partners in defining the terms of the relationship. In view of the deeper Chinese presence in Africa, South Block is positioning itself as an “alternative non-western partner”.
African voices at the Summit have called for Indian help in matters ranging from the reconstruction of an island destroyed by a volcano to fighting the Boko Haram, and from setting up a state-of-the-art hospital to making private investments in roads and highways. According to an MEA official, the Modi government, which has a penchant for catchy acronyms, could describe its relationship with the continent it is hosting as “ABBA”: Africa for Bharat, and Bharat for Africa.
It remains to be seen whether the Africans are convinced.
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