Prime Minister Modi has just returned from his five-day tour (7-11 July) of eastern and southern Africa. Following the visits to Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya, the number of countries he has visited in his tenure since May 2014 has gone up to 42. This was his 24th tour abroad as PM. Many are excited and appreciative of his activism in foreign affairs, but others are skeptical and critical. In this light, the question as to what the Africa tour achieved needs a dispassionate answer.
At the diplomatic level, the visits to the four countries were well-designed and comprehensive in nature. The endeavour throughout was to hold dialogues not only with the government but also to interact with business elites, universities, PIO communities and others.
These occasions were utilised optimally to present India’s achievements and strengths as well as to shed light on its philosophy of socio-economic development and foreign policy. The visits were also valuable for the PM and his delegation to obtain insights into the real situation in Africa today, and the thinking, needs and priorities of African governments. Besides, India’s multi-faceted African connections were showcased to the world, with skill and imagination.
In this context, a few specific outcomes that are immediately visible need to be spelt out as below.
First, the delegation has returned with a rich haul of 19 new agreements signed with African governments. The break-up is: Mozambique – 3; South Africa – 4; Tanzania – 5; and Kenya – 7. These cover cooperation in diverse areas like defence, ICT, small industry, water supply, DTA, culture, youth affairs and sports, visa exemption etc. They are an indicator of where bilateral cooperation will head in the future. Despite skepticism over the extent of implementation of the agreements signed during VVIP visits, it is worthwhile to point out that they provide a solid basis for action and follow-up by the concerned bureaucracies.
Second, experts who diligently analyze the joint communiqués/statements issued during the visits will testify that India-Africa relations have been shifting their focus from the past history to future vision, from purely political issues to largely questions of solid economic and development cooperation, and from hesitation to candour and confidence in forging partnerships in security and the defence sector. References to defence cooperation, maritime security and synergy on cyber security and in countering terrorism, drug trafficking etc., are fairly novel elements in the African context.
Third, as an integral part of its foreign policy agenda, the present leadership accords high importance to ties with the Indian Diaspora. The four countries host sizable communities: Mozambique – 20,000; Tanzania – 50,000; Kenya 80,000; and South Africa – 1.5 million. Modi interacted with the communities (or their leaders) in all of them. Major events were organized in Johannesburg and Nairobi. The larger event, attended by some 20,000 people, was held in the Kenyan capital where the audience’s response to Modi’s speech was more robust and enthusiastic than anywhere else. However, it should be underlined that Nairobi was the only place where the president of the host country accompanied the Indian PM to the community event. He made a point to underline that PIOs were “Kenyan citizens.”
Fourth, there were other tangible outcomes of the tour. South Africa publicly announced its support for India’s membership of NSG, thus dispelling the apprehension that it might choose to side with China on this sensitive matter. The significance of the agreement to purchase pulses from Mozambique (which we will help them to produce) has been widely noted. Tanzania’s explicit appreciation for India’s contribution to its water resource management would gladden many hearts in India. The stop at Maputo represented a decisive bid by India to enhance its role in Lusophone Africa. Mozambique’s role as “one of the fastest growing economies of the world” was noted and praised by the visiting delegation. Kenya’s decision to conclude a defence cooperation agreement reflected the emerging strategic nature of the relationship with India.
Finally, a convergence of perspectives on several regional issues – BRICS and IBSA in Pretoria, India’s support for Tanzania’s role in EAC in Dar es Salaam, and the agreement to strengthen IORA in both Nairobi and Pretoria – is also imbued with considerable significance.
An interesting formulation in the India-Kenya joint communiqué was transmission of Modi’s congratulations to President Uhuru Kenyatta, a somewhat controversial leader in the past, for his “strong and focused leadership.” The host did not fail to acknowledge “the important role” played by the Indian PM “both nationally and internationally.” India-Kenya relationship is set to grow fast in what may be viewed as a subtle balancing act by India.
In sum, it was a productive visit. Its long-term benefits will depend, as always, on the will and capacity of those responsible, in the governments and beyond, to ensure effective follow-up measures. If they step up to the plate, mutual benefit is assured.
Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme, Gateway House, and a former high commissioner to South Africa, Lesotho and Kenya.
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