A comment from Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete to former PM Manmohan Singh four years ago neatly encapsulated the challenge and the opportunity for India in Africa.
“The Chinese might build hospital buildings, but we need Indian doctors and nurses to serve there,” quipped Kikwete after his meeting with Singh, who was visiting the east African country, underscoring how his country wants to tap both Asian rivals for its many needs.
The understated Singh has given way to the pushier Narendra Modi, so expect the relationship to acquire a new footing. Modi, unlike Singh, is a believer in the power of spectacle; chances are that he will use the India-Africa summit in New Delhi this month-end to move decisively away from a past that was rooted in idealism and intent, and not enough action.
It is a plain fact that Africa needs partnerships. And India remains in a position to leverage Africa’s quest for development as it seeks to play a larger role in the global stage. With 54 African countries accepting India’s invitation to the October 29 event, it is likely to be bigger than similar events hosted by the United States and China.
Though India cannot match China for sheer money power – the Chinese will swamped the continent with $100 billion in investments by 2020 -- or the superpower clout that the United States can wield at will, it is in a position to forge enduring partnerships with many countries.
It has already has overtaken the United States as the largest trading partner of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country and one of the largest oil producers in the world. With oil prices falling and political instability rearing its head regularly in west Asia, it makes immediate business sense to switch to spot purchases of African oil from long-term contracts with suppliers in the Arab world.
Needless to say, it also makes strategic sense to invest in the in the energy sector in Africa, which now supplies 17 per cent of India’s total oil imports.
Many Indian companies have subsidiaries in Africa, and have settled in with an ease that’s the envy of Western rivals. Africa offers an attractive demographic dividend – Kikwete’s Tanzania, for example, has nearly half of its population in the 18-45 age group. By 2020, Africa will have some 226 million people between 14 and 25. Many business leaders, executive chairman of Alphabet Eric Schmidt among them, speak of the continent’s youth as its biggest hope.
Africa, fighting its own militant groups, could be a valuable partner for India in the fight against terror. African countries, most of them more aligned with India in their world view than with China or the United States, hold one of the vital keys for the United Nations Security Council reforms.
Soaked in sunshine, starved of energy, and riven by challenges that climate change poses to developing countries, many African countries could be partners in Prime Minister Modi’s ambitious plans for leading a solar energy revolution.
India has a fair amount to offer. It’s the source of more than 80 percent of the drugs to fight AIDS in African countries. A large number of African students find it attractive to study in India, many of them on government scholarships. For education in English medium, India offers reasonably good quality education at a fraction of the price at American universities.
Inevitably, what India does in and for Africa will be compared with what China does. Beijing is aiming for a trade volume of $400 billion in the next five years. India’s trade is projected to be a relatively modest $90 billion this year.
But this is just part of the story. While there’s no keeping pace with the Chinese numbers, what works to India’s advantage is a degree of resentment at the way the Chinese work, in a continent where wariness of domination by a foreign power is all-pervasive. The Chinese do things in inimitable style, of course: Win contracts, beat deadlines and leave a small army of men behind for maintenance. They make no bones about the fact that the thirst for resources is a major driving factor for the interest in Africa.
In comparison the way India works on the ground -- need-based approach, capacity building, training, and trying to do things the way African countries want them -- is surely more endearing. But the flip side is inherent bureaucratic inertia and a rigid regulatory framework that
often delay Indian projects. There was no effective follow-through mechanism to deals signed at the last edition of the India-Africa summit in 2011.
Almost all officials who interact with Prime Minister Modi vouch for his impatience with those who cite hurdles when it comes to implementing projects. That impatience could ensure that the spectacle a fortnight away is just the precursor to a more substantive relationship.