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Why India Must Focus On Africa

Updated: October 23, 2010 3:44 pm

One hundred and seventeen years back, a scraggy gentleman commenced his professional career in the ‘dark continent’. Though he carried on with his vocation, the gentleman could not remain apathetic to the plight of the Indians residing in the southernmost region of the continent. In a letter to the Natal Advertiser, he asked: “Is this Christian-like, is this fair play, is this justice, is this civilization?”

                It hardly requires any authoritative scholarship to discern the identity of the gentleman. Yes, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi left an indelible imprint in South Africa. His efforts against racial discrimination in South Africa are beyond praise. While sculpting a history of modernity, the ‘tallness’ of this man simply cannot be ignored. He was the first perceivable and visible link between India and Africa.

                Six decades have gone by, sixty three years to be precise; and the time has necessarily not come but surely gone past: the time to seize the opportunity to emulate Gandhi in order to weave a bond between the two (sub) continents.

India’s Foreign Policy

When an analysis of Indian Foreign Policy is carried out, one is a bit bewildered that it lacks a coherent framework. Arguments may be posited that foreign policy needs to be dynamical and cannot be subsumed in an overarching theory. No doubt, yes. However, it does not imply that a nation-state must not possess a set direction and consistent ideology. Twists and turns depending on the context are tactical moves and not strategic shifts in any manner.

                India though, does have a loose set of doctrines as far as foreign policy is concerned. And that ideology was proclaimed by none other than Gandhi’s most favoured disciple; Jawaharlal Nehru. Successive Indian governments, whether the centrist-Congress or the socialist-Morarji or even the so-called ‘reactionary’ right wing have more or less followed it over the years without completely dismantling it. The lofty ideals of Non-Alignment gave India emotional and ethical space in the world podium undoubtedly, but snatched away from it the weaponry of realpolitik. Our leaders kept on receiving adulations (or did they?) from outside and as an ‘insider’ we felt the pangs of being left behind.

                The germane question is in a post-1991 and more so in a post-9/11 world, what is the viable formula for a developing nation’s foreign policy? With a hegemonic America, a resurgent Russia, a ‘rising’ China and a ‘belligerent’ Pakistan lurking around, the Indian policymakers have their work cut out. In this scenario, in which direction should India move to generate maximum benefit to its masses without compromising on its core principle of ‘live and let live’?

                A feasible solution which India has hopefully at last started to implement is the ‘soft diplomacy’. India is ‘infiltrating’ countries like Afghanistan and Bangladesh; but not with a target to subjugate or exploit. India’s sole aim is to permeate the socio-cultural and economic matrix of a country without blowing the trumpets.

                Indian software, Bollywood films, our technical know-how and English-speaking workforce and a mammoth manpower are by every means intimidating. Instead of us being cowed down by Chinese forays into Africa or Central Asia or its alliance with ASEAN or even its flirtations in our immediate neighbourhood; India needs to pump up its own muscles since its tendons are strong enough.

                In this aspect, one thing is noteworthy. Some analysts view that anyone advocating India to be pro-active in Africa or Latin America or for that matter Central Asia is necessarily ‘hawkish’ in stance and an ’emulationist’ in principle. To them, if one suggests India to be pro-active, then the person is basically asking South Block to follow China’s footsteps. And since India is not ‘strong enough’ as China is, no point in imitating the dragon. However, even such commentators are not averse to India making inroads into regions of present Chinese dominance.

                Actually, we need to appreciate the fact that China is indeed a ‘rising’ power and our relations with that country are far from normal; the recent development in Gilgit-Baltistan is a case in point. Hence if we can counter China, then it would be to our benefit.

                So, there is no harm in framing a China-focused foreign policy and that does not make us ‘hawkish’.

                Rather it is a security imperative. Even Lord Meghnad Desai seems to be wary of China when he says: “The Great Game is alive again. In the 19th century, it was Russia looking for a salt water port. Now it is China and China seems to be winning the great game.”

                Among other things, China has spread its tentacles in Africa in a big manner and India simply cannot afford to miss the bus.

The African Pie?

The ‘Scramble for Africa’ began during the period of New Imperialism (in the late nineteenth century). It led to the economic subjugation and political domination over the continent. Though most African colonies were faithful to the European powers during the two world wars but after 1945, they started to throw off the yoke of foreign powers and gradually emerged victorious.

                Thus, it is no surprise that in 2010, 17 African nations celebrate 50 years of their Independence. The ‘dark continent’ is now on the path to modernity and globalisation. From the Aswan dam to Kalahari Desert, Africa can be viewed as a tapestry of different cultures. From the geo-strategic and geo-economic perspective, there has been a significant rise in the importance of Africa owing to its location, oil deposits, mineral wealth, booming market and rich bio-diversity.

India’s inroads into Africa

Viewed through the prism of history, trade links between India and Africa were restricted mostly to the countries in the ‘Horn of Africa’. In the 6th century AD, Indian ships flocked to the Ethiopian ports to trade in silk and spices. In recent years, the list of goods has leapfrogged and most of the focus has been on investment and economic relations.

                Indo-African trade has reached $35 billion and the target is to double it by 2014. India launched the ‘Focus Africa’ programme under the EXIM (Export-Import) Policy 2002-07, thus providing financial assistance to various inter-regional trade promotion schemes. As a result, members of India Inc. have made substantial investments in Africa.

                In the defence sector, India assists countries like Nigeria, Zambia and Botswana through training. Co-operation in healthcare, agriculture, mining, hydrocarbon sectors are also on the rise. Interestingly, Nigeria is the largest African crude oil supplier to India. Recently, a $200 million project to lay a pipeline from Khartoum to Port Sudan on the Red Sea was also completed by India. Also in recognition of India’s growing role as an industrial and economic power, last year Egypt offered India to set-up an ‘India Zone’ along the Suez Canal development area.

                Indian firms have invested around $3 billion in Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique and Madagascar to produce wide variety of food and bio-fuel crops. Indian government also provides cheap lines of credit to these countries. Furthermore, in 2009, India signed a civilian nuclear deal to trade in Uranium and build nuclear power plants with Namibia.

                In July 2010, an Indian delegation participated in the 15th summit of the African Union (AU), which is an association of 53 African countries. Emphasis was laid on various aspects of the decisions taken in the India-Africa Forum Summit (IAFS) of 2008.

But is India doing enough? Is it not falling back in the race vis-à-vis China?

In 2009, China emerged as the largest trading partner of Africa, with bilateral trade touching $ 90 bn. The forum on China-Africa Cooperation was initiated way back in 2000. China is also involved in multiple infrastructural projects like dams, bridges, roads etc often in exchange of future mineral rights. It also constantly provides African countries with ‘soft loans’ and economic packages. Thus, the Chinese footprint is deeply and clearly visible on the African soil.

                China is a permanent member of the UN security council whereas India is still struggling to be one. At present, India is all set to contest the post of a non-permanent member in January 2011. Thus, it becomes imperative to garner the support of AU. Possibly, this was the raison d’etre for Vice President Hamid Ansari’s visit to Zambia, Malawi, Botswana, Mauritius and Mozambique early this year.


India and Africa, both being members of the Commonwealth, the tri-continental India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) and NAM, can also try to improve their relations through these associations. In an effort to boost trade ties, India can plan to provide duty-free access to products from African countries. It can also work on double taxation avoidance mechanism with member countries. Also, in the wake of piracy attacks in the Gulf of Aden, Indian Navy has a scope to play a bigger role.

                It will also be praiseworthy, if India can hold regular summit level meetings with African nations. India can also set up more consulate offices in AU countries. Organizing Indo-African games would be an innovative idea as well. Increasing contact with the Indian Diaspora in Africa would be a welcome step as they can play a large role in strengthening bilateral ties. Also, significant efforts should be made to increase ground contacts i.e. Indian officials in Africa should be appropriately trained in local languages.

                Another area which can be strengthened is Indian Technical and Economic Co-operation Programme (ITEC) which aims to develop human resource through various trainings and workshops in target countries. Additionally, initiatives like the India-AU Pan-African e-Network [linking 53 countries through tele-medicine, education and governance] which plays a crucial role in developing skills and resources critical for Africa’s growth, can be enhanced and newer projects can be added to this list.


India has emerged as the largest contributor to UN mandated operations in Africa, with a cumulative effort totalling more than 30,000 personnel. Its operations are spread across Congo, Somalia, Sudan, Sierra Leone etc. UN has also expressed satisfaction with India’s performance and role in these missions. Events like the latest developments in Congo in August this year where three of its officers were killed by rebels, should not discourage India in any manner.

                India has to convince Africa of its long-term commitments in the continent which are unlike the ‘short term’ Chinese interests. There are rising fears in Africa of China’s aggressive economic policy which threatens to take over its resources and means of production. The Chinese supply of arms to local elite, involvement in regional conflicts and its record of human rights violation could also boomerang in the long run.

                India and Africa can share a symbiotic relationship. And the onus is on India to convince the Africans.

                As Sunil Bharti Mittal aptly points out in an interview: “I believe the next decade is going to belong to Africa. India and China are driving the economy but where will it all move next? Africa is the next continent.”

By Uddipan Mukherjee and Indira Mukherjee

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