Ambassador Rajiv Bhatia offers, in a capsule, a masterly dissertation of India’s relationship with Africa with thoughtful strategic choices for India in the 21st century. Drawn heavily from his experiences in the diplomatic service with postings in Africa, he covers the total landscape of a changing relationship with high stakes for both sides, given that by 2050 they will be home to 4.1 billion people, accounting for 42% of humankind.
A vast and diverse continent composed of 54 countries, Africa is passing through, at any given point of time, multiple transitions in its journey towards economic integration as embodied in the AU Agenda 2063 that seeks to transform Africa into a global powerhouse in the 21st century. The highly ambitious African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is expected to drive trade, investment and industrialisation within the continent.
In the new scramble for Africa, several nations are actively pursuing development projects, none more diligently than China, whose presence on the continent, the author observes, denotes a shifting balance of wealth and power away from the West. Cleverly couched in its support for infrastructure projects in Africa, China has managed to seek diplomatic recognition for itself at the expense of Taiwan, a prerequisite for its cooperation. India’s development outreach in Africa often suffers from unfavourable comparison and competition with China, which the author points out can be avoided since the skill sets and attributes of each country are completely different.
The author traces India’s relations with Africa to the early struggles of Gandhi in South Africa against racial prejudices and apartheid that shaped his thinking and resolve, which became an enduring source of inspiration to the world. In his unforgettable portrayal of Gandhi, Nelson Mandela pointed out that India sent a lawyer to South Africa, which returned a Mahatma, who became a beacon of hope for all time to come.
Ambassador Bhatia underlines that India’s abiding support to Africa since our independence cuts across parties and governments. Both Nehru and Indira Gandhi, the early crusaders for Africa’s liberation, drew the world’s attention to its infinite suffering from colonialism and apartheid. Indira Gandhi aptly captured this popular emotion during Mandela’s visit in 1980 when she stated “the white man’s burden had for long been carried on the shoulder of the black and brown man”, categorically predicting the demise of apartheid.
The three India-Africa Forum Summits in the last two decades represent the most effective bond between the two, signifying elevation of their relationship. Prime Minister Narendra Modi deepened India’s engagement with Africa through high level exchange of visits, including his own visits to the continent. India’s spirit of sharing, underpinned by the solidarity of South-South Cooperation, was best encapsulated in Mr. Modi’s address to the Ugandan Parliament in July 2018 where he said “India’s development assistance to Africa will be defined by its objectives and priorities”, a model of cooperation that is free of conditionality and one that is liberating economically. India’s lines of credit, grants and capacity-building under Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation programmes, the setting up of technical institutions under Centres of Excellence in Information and Technology, and Vocational Centre for Training, burgeoning bilateral trade at over $70 billion, and cumulative investments at $65 billion are all indicative of strong economic linkages. India has done much to reach out to African countries during the Covid-19 pandemic with timely supply of medicines, medical equipment and vaccines.
The growing people-to-people contacts between the two regions, the author underscores, is the third pillar of the relationship. Africa is home to a sizable Indian diaspora of 3.15 million, while, at any point in time, about 150,000 African students study in India. With two-thirds of their population being below 35 years, forging deeper economic linkages and skill development become imperative and, one constructive way out, the author suggests, is to allow African students with a degree or diploma from an Indian institution to work for a year or more in an Indian company or in its offices in Africa. Sensitive handling of racial prejudices against African students in India is vital to sustaining our relationship and the welfare of our diaspora in Africa.
The author makes a strong case for India consciously creating value locally in terms of employment generation, skill development, manufacturing, services, start-ups, education, healthcare, and so on. Atmanirbhar Bharat would be mutually beneficial if extended to the African continent, envisaging last-leg manufacturing of finished products there for local markets. Similarly, trilateral cooperation, involving a third country, could take up projects jointly for attaining optimum value.
Ambassador Bhatia believes that India’s unique political and economic development model is appealing to Africans, but wants our policy postulation to see beyond the historical bonds and shared struggles towards creating enduring partnerships with a rising Africa in the 21st century that will add to multi-polarity, a development eminently in India’s interest. In other words, “Waka, Waka. This time for Africa”!
This article was first published in Business Standard.
Dammu Ravi is Secretary (Economic Relations), Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India.