Four changes or incipient trends were noteworthy at the third India-Africa Forum Summit last month. These spell out the contours of the engagement that India will pursue with the African continent, its constituent countries, and regional organisations, as well as the government’s desire for a course correction in the traditional trajectory of the India-Africa relationship.
In the first change, a departure from the approach of previous Indian governments, the October event dispensed with the practice of following the Banjul formula, under which only a few African countries participated in the summit . This time, the government invited all 54 African countries to New Delhi, and among those who came were 40 heads of state. While the shift in policy could be ascribed to this government’s predilection for spectacular optics, it is also true that the multilateral summit gave India an opportunity to engage with each country—Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj held numerous bilateral discussions with individual leaders and representatives.
This extensive bilateral exercise is tied to a second new policy stance—Modi’s push to forge a united front with African nations for a common, but differentiated, negotiating framework in multilateral institutions. India’s previous desires to build such a platform had remained nebulous; the most long-standing of these relates to reforms in the United Nations Security Council. In his inaugural speech at the summit , Modi said: “…our global institutions reflect the circumstances of the century that we left behind, not the one we are in today…That is why India and Africa must speak in one voice for reforms of the United Nations, including its Security Council.”
Beyond this, PM Modi has sought African support on two other critical multilateral fronts — climate change negotiations and trade talks. For the first, Modi wants to create a club: “I also invite you to join an alliance of solar-rich countries that I have proposed to launch in Paris on November 30 at the time of the COP-21 meeting.” A combined front such as this will be necessary when negotiating with rich countries for resources to shift to clean energy technologies because, “the excess of [a] few cannot become the burden of many.”
Modi also wants to align African countries to India’s concerns with the global trading regime. This becomes important given the forthcoming World Trade Organisation (WTO) ministerial in Nairobi in December, where developing countries are likely to make a last-ditch effort to save the Doha Development Round. The threat comes from developed nations, specifically the U.S., which in October has signed the Trans Pacific Partnership with 11 other nations and is lobbying to bury the development round.
Modi said as much in his inaugural speech: “India and Africa seek also a global trading regime that serves our development goals and improves our trade prospects. We must ensure that the Doha Development Agenda of 2001 is not closed without achieving these fundamental objectives. We should also achieve a permanent solution on public stockholding for food security and special safeguard mechanism in agriculture for the developing countries.”
India’s desire to construct a common bargaining platform is probably driven by the embarrassment of July 2014, when it was isolated while blocking the Trade Facilitation Agreement at WTO’s General Council meeting. India’s other attempts to get developing countries on board—to provide Duty Free Tariff Preference (DTFP) to least developed countries on 98% of its tariff lines, including in services— have also produced mixed results, prompting the government to now fast-track the entire scheme.
These points of common and joint multilateral action have been re-emphasised in the India-Africa Framework for Strategic Cooperation, which was released at the end of the October summit .
The third outcome is a public acknowledgement of the partial success in implementing India’s marquee development cooperation programmes—concessional lines of credit (LOCs), grants, and capacity building through the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation Programme as well as the Pan Africa E-Network—and the need to improve the current processes.
Modi announced enhanced allocations for the programme—$10 billion under concessional LOCs (double the $5 billion announced at the 2011 summit), $600 million of grants, and 50,000 scholarships in India—but also admitted, in a departure from convention, that, “There are times when we have not done as well as you have wanted us to. There have been occasions when we have not been as attentive as we should be. There are commitments we have not fulfilled as quickly as we should have.”
The problem with LOCs is well documented  including a widening gap between sanctions and disbursements. In a pre-summit media briefing  in New Delhi on October 17, Secretary (West) in the Ministry of External Affairs, Navtej Singh Sarna, gave an update on LOCs: of the $7.4 billion on offer so far, $6.8 billion has been approved and $3.5 billion disbursed. In effect, disbursals are only 51.47% of sanctions.
Both India and recipient African countries are responsible for the low disbursal rate. In India, a multi-tiered and multi-agency framework for sanctioning and disbursing these loans creates delays. Additionally, a non-transparent process engenders attendant distortions. Exim Bank, which finally disburses the loans, has complained to the Prime Minister’s Office about malpractices . On the African side, capacity gaps in drawing up detailed project reports, essential for the Indian side to conduct a proper appraisal and assessment, cause enormous delays.
The Framework for Strategic Cooperation has promised to introduce a “regular formal monitoring mechanism” to review the implementation of, and progress in, areas of cooperation and identified projects.
The fourth change was the absence of an announcement of trade targets, a departure from the accepted practice at such forums. This was probably necessitated because India-Africa two-way trade has fallen short of the $90 billion 2015 target . But such ambitious targets tend to overshadow otherwise admirable progress in trade relations. In fact, trade between India and Africa has been remarkable. According to government data , two-way trade touched $72 billion during 2014-15, which is a vast improvement over the $4.5 billion of 1996-97.
But beyond these four directional indicators, interlocutors still need to address some persistent gaps in the India-Africa alliance.
One, there is little data in the public domain about the development and progress of projects, especially those under the LOC umbrella or under other initiatives announced from time to time. For instance, there is no report card on the promise to help build 100 institutions that India made during the second India-Africa Forum Summit in Addis Ababa in 2011.
Two, with similar and competing summits being hosted by China, Japan, Turkey, and the U.S., India should work on upgrading the status of its India-Africa Summit by including sub-fora on labour representatives, think tanks, civil society, academia, and women’s rights groups, in addition to the existing India-Africa Business Forum.
Rajrishi Singhal is Senior Geoeconomics Fellow, Gateway House. He has been a senior business journalist, and Executive Editor, The Economic Times, and served as Head, Policy and Research, at a private sector bank, before shifting to consultancy and policy analysis.
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