The outline of a new India-Africa relationship has been sketched by the four-nation tour of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the five African nations visited earlier by the president and vice-president. This new formulation goes beyond the traditional mix of post-colonial rhetoric, historical ties and diaspora links.
India’s new Africa policy dovetails three substantial interests. One is economic: Trade between the two is over $90 billion while Indian firms have now invested $14 billion in the continent. Both figures are rising rapidly. Notably, India’s economic relationship is now far more diversified than it once was. Much of the investment is private sector-driven and in non-resource areas like telecom and consumer products. Two is a development partnership which looks to provide Africans better access to technical education and healthcare. In this, India is sensibly targeting the hearts, minds and pocketbooks of the 100 million plus African middle class that have arisen in the past few decades. Third is a nascent security relationship that conflates common concerns about Islamicist terror with India’s desire to blanket the Indian Ocean with a network of relationships that will look first to New Delhi rather than Washington or Beijing.
As then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told African leaders, India seeks to be a partner with a difference. Hence programmes that offer to develop human resources rather than mineral ones. Indian private sector investment is commercially driven with no strategic component. And something the African on the street has noted: Indian firms do not import labour as many Chinese firms do. Even the pulses-growing agreement with Mozambique that Modi signed was a model of how foreign land use should be done: The land remains with local farmers who receive a buy-back guarantee from India for their crop. The differences with China and even the West are obvious and deliberate. Hopefully it will make the India-Africa relationship politically more resilient. India should avoid what has happened in Zambia and elsewhere: Local election campaigns where China-bashing has been the main election platform.
It would be simplistic to say India’s Africa engagement is all sugar and spice. State-owned Indian firms have made large resource-based investments in Africa and plan to carry out more. There is now a strategic content to India’s engagement with at least the littoral African states. New Delhi provides support services for African democracies but avoids commenting on any domestic nastiness of some other regimes. Most importantly, the Indian government’s patently untrue claims that the assaults and petty harassment Africans face inside India are not about racism need to be addressed. The outlines of a new engagement are evident, but the most difficult part of filling in the spaces avoiding being painted with a neo-colonial brush and coming to terms with India’s colour problem.