The first Africa-India Forum summit was held at New Delhi earlier this month. There were several other events organised on the sidelines of the Summit: the first ever India-Africa Editors Conference, joint performances by Indian and African cultural troupes a seminar of intellectuals from Africa and India on India-Africa Partnership in the 21st century, a programme for youth and women from Africa and a business conclave. The summit, which was a culmination of several levels of dialogue, is already being considered a success in many quarters. It is hoped that these events will create an enabling environment for upgrading economic cooperation between India and Africa.
The events had their share of coverage in the mainstream media– Indian, African and western. However, the landmark event deserves much wider appreciation and analysis than provided by the perfunctory news reports covering the events.
On one hand, western analysts tend to see all major Indian initiatives on Africa, including this summit, through the prism of competition between the burgeoning economies of India and China. On the other hand, many African commentators have warned their own leaders about India’s intentions in what they have disparagingly labelled as a “second scramble for Africa”.
The key drivers for this summit and other Indian initiatives on Africa go beyond the traditional factors raised by most analysts. It is not limited to containing or matching Chinese economic interests in Africa or answering India’s impending quest for energy security. Unlike China, India has had a historical relationship with the African continent for centuries, based on trade with the eastern and southern coasts of Africa. The presence of a large Indian diaspora in Africa for over two centuries also provides India with a unique advantage over its Asian neighbour. India’s quest for energy in Africa, unlike China, is not a core component of the Indian government’s energy security policy; rather, it is part of its bid to diversify energy sources.
So what was the rationale for the India-Africa summit, if not mimicking the China-Africa summit last year? It is an obvious indicator of the renewed drive in the India – Africa story. Current global equations and recent Indian policies indicate that India’s engagement with Africa has shifted from the old issues of colonialism, non-alignment and South–South cooperation to issues of trade and economy.
Ever since India’s economic revival in the mid-nineties, India’s foreign policy has been increasingly driven towards finding export markets, attracting foreign capital and know-how. This policy shift is echoed across Africa as most of the economies there are going through economic reforms and liberalisation. The Indian diplomats have been working overtime to garner support for its quest for a seat in the UNSC in the continent. The Indian stand on the western agricultural subsidies at the WTO negotiations has been in consonance with the views of most African nations.
The recent improvement in India’s economic relations with Africa, however, cannot be attributed solely to the new focused approach of the Indian government. Another factor is the ‘outward-looking’ attitude of India’s private sector. Tempted by the easy availability of capital and driven by the search for new markets, Indian companies have been eagerly targeting those regions in Africa, in which they had shown little interest until recently. The economic boom in India and the success of both home-grown and NRI/PIO (Non-Resident Indian/Person of Indian Origin) companies in Europe and parts of South America have given Indian businesses the confidence to venture into Africa.
Indian companies’ increased activities in Africa have spurred the government to link its diplomacy in the continent more explicitly to its economic requirements. The Indian engagement reflects private-enterprise led bottom-up approach of its economy. In tandem with this policy change, India’s commercial ties with Africa have grown as the India-Africa trade volume has increased by 285 percent to 25 billion U.S. dollars in the last four years.
African countries hold India in high esteem – in particular, on account of its democratic institutions and the manner of its economic growth. India, as a democratic developing country, serves as a role model for these countries and is a source of support in various sectors, especially agriculture, services and small- and medium-scale manufacturing. Above all, it is the new image of India -– that of a leader in the information technology industry, biotechnology and telecommunications -– that has attracted Africa to India.
For their part, African political leaders would like their constituencies to believe that India and Africa are making a joint effort to improve the well-being of their peoples and societies. It is here that India’s real influence in Africa will emanate– from its success in achieving sustained economic growth and lifting many out of poverty in a democratic, post-colonial setting. It is for the Indian political and bureaucratic masters to remember that the right message to an external constituency in such an environment will be only delivered by a continued focus on domestic reforms. The Indian leadership will be judged by its African partners on how India progressively tackles various impediments to its economic growth in fields of infrastructure, education, labour and other roadblocks. It is imperative that India is perceived to be addressing its own developmental challenges successfully; only then will others, including Africa, consider it as an attractive and rightful partner for the future.