India-Africa Ties: an Ascending Trajectory-Rajiv Bhatia
India’s Vice President M. Hamid Ansari returned recently from his latest Africa tour covering Nigeria and Mali. Perhaps even reasonably well-informed Indians may have difficulty in locating Mali on the map. They will certainly be surprised to learn that India extended concessional credit assistance of over $350 million to Mali, which helped in implementing five projects ranging from agriculture to railways. This first-ever high level visit to the west African country concluded a year (October 2015-September 2016) of intensive interaction between India and Africa. This kind of wide-ranging political and business exchanges have not been seen before.
The eventful year began with New Delhi hosting the Third India-Africa Forum Summit (IAFS-III) in October 2015. It was a historic summit in which all 54 countries of Africa participated, 41 of them at the level of head of state or government. It was undoubtedly the biggest gathering of African leaders on the Indian soil. More importantly, its outcome in the shape of substantive documents reflected both a sizeable convergence of interests and perspectives as well as a joint political commitment to deepen and diversify the relationship.
The summit paved the way for India's unprecedented, high-profile diplomacy as its top trio - the president, the vice president and the prime minister - undertook four tours to Africa between June and September 2016, comprising visits to a total of 11 countries situated in the north, west, southern and east Africa. (In addition, Prime Minister Modi had travelled to Mauritius and Seychelles in March 2015, which are both African and Indian Ocean states.)
Even the most optimistic of India’s Africa experts could not help experiencing a pleasant surprise at this welcome turn. The present, therefore, is an apt moment to examine the drivers, directions, gaps and future possibilities in the burgeoning India-Africa engagement.
Drivers and Directions
Africa and India have often been depicted as “the natural partners.” Among Africa’s international partners including the EU, US and China, India justifiably claims to have the oldest and longest association and cooperation with ‘the Mother Continent.’ Without delving into the ancient and medieval history, suffice it is to recall that the struggle for de-colonization, opposition to racial discrimination, and the quest for non-alignment, development and democracy moulded India's relations with African nations.
In the 21st century, a mix of potent geo-political and economic factors have impacted the relationship. However, to view the India-Africa equation from the prism of “the China factor” alone is to miss the point. There is a fundamental complementarity of perspectives and mutuality of interests, encompassing shared values and principles, geopolitics and economy, energy and food security, defence and counter-terrorism, and Africa’s admiration for India's development model, which fuel the current renaissance.
A strong national consensus exists in India on the importance of and the need for further strengthening the engagement with Africa. In March 2015, PM Modi observed: “India and Africa share a deep of friendship, forged by history, common challenges and a shared journey on the path of progress.” The joint India-Africa caravan crossed several important milestones in the past twelve months.
The Delhi Declaration, issued at the conclusion of IAFS-III, paints the two sides as “Partners in Progress” that are working on a shared dynamic and transformative development agenda. India's generous commitment of financial assistance is noteworthy in this context. Since 2008, India extended concessional credit of $7.4 billion and grant of $1.2 billion to Africa. It trained 25,000 young Africans in India during 2012-15 and helped in setting up new training institutions in various African countries. Building further on this, the Third Summit resulted in India's offer of a new concessional credit of $10 billion and a grant of $600 million for the period 2016-20. The additional financial resources are instrumental in launching new development projects all across Africa.
Beyond development cooperation, the strength of India-Africa economic relationship may be gauged by the fact that bilateral trade increased from $12 billion during 2005-06 to $72 billion in 2014-15. During this period, exports from India to Africa increased from $7 billion to $33 billion and imports from Africa to India increased from $5 billion to $39 billion. Thus, bilateral trade is fairly balanced. According to the Reserve Bank of India, approved cumulative investments from India to the SADC region alone amounted to $46.5 billion during the 1996-2015 period. However, experts maintain that trade and investment are well below the optimal potential which should be tapped fully.
The journeys of India's top leaders to select African countries such as Morocco, Ghana, Namibia, Mozambique, South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria, among others, have demonstrated India genuine interest in nurturing the multi-faceted ties. President Pranab Mukherjee rightly stressed that India-Africa bonds were forged “in the furnace of our independence struggles”, and that in the modern era India has been playing “a major role” in the development of African nations. India is strongly committed to aligning its development assistance to Africa’s development priorities. It is now appropriate for India to expect Africa to support more explicitly the former’s ambition to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council as well as its steadfast campaign against cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan.
While the Government-to-Government relations have witnessed much progress, it is now essential for Business-to-Business and People-to-People relations to be expanded and diversified – further and faster. An increased involvement of state governments, civil society, media and the strategic and academic community will be of considerable value in achieving this goal.
Finally, a sustained focus on implementing the agreements reached and commitments made as well as a periodic review of progress in implementation will be of critical importance. As the Indian economy grows, India should be ready to share more of its resources with its African partners. Above all, the Indian polity should also learn to be more humane and hospitable in welcoming students, tourists, artists, business people and others from Africa.
Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House and a former Indian high commissioner to Kenya, South Africa and Lesotho. He writes regularly on developments in Africa. He can be contacted at email@example.com