Paying rich and lyrical tribute to the continent of Africa and its one billion plus inhabitants, PM Modi identified equitable development, that went beyond economic benefits and strategic concerns, as the key to the new relationship in his address at the India-Africa Summit.
Acknowledging Africa as the cradle of human history at the Delhi Summit that brought 54 African nations together, Modi asserted,
Dawn of a New Partnership?
Resource-rich Africa is the emerging strategic flavour of the 21st century. Its many tangible indicators, such as a population of over 1.2 billion and related youth profile and the complementary socio-economic viability of the developing world provide a natural partnership framework for India-Africa cooperation.
Two-way trade has crossed $70 billion and doubling this over the next five years is within the realm of possibility, if the two sides can bring institutional integrity and political determination to the table.
Shared Cultures, Entwined Destinies
Modi’s emphasis on the emotional bonding and shared solidarity that links the two partners is an appropriate distillation of the past, wherein post 1947, independent India was in the vanguard of the global effort that enabled the gradual dismantling of the colonial fetters that shackled Africa. Subsequently, under UN aegis, India was a major contributor in the Peace Keeping Operations — both at the higher level (wherein many Indian generals played a sterling role) and by way of thousands of troops.
The political legacy that subsumes Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru’s non-alignment policies has a deep resonance in Africa. Be it Nelson Mandela or the current generation of leaders, India is a noisy and uneven but robust democratic model that is often invoked in the current political discourse of the continent.
The challenge for the Modi government will be to outline a framework for the new development model that builds on the empathy of the past without being trapped in the nostalgia of that period.
Africa as a continent is wary of the external interlocutor, having been duped and literally enslaved for centuries by European and North American powers. The post independence experience of many African nations has been one of glaring human-security inadequacies and an exploitative domestic elite that has allowed its rich (natural) resources to become an abiding curse.
Terms of Engagement
India while being perceived more positively as an external power has to ensure that its engagement with the African continent, while working towards mutual benefit is not devoid of that intangible emotional empathy. Regrettably, this trait is not discernible.
In one’s own interactions with Africa and Africans since 1970 a few vignettes stand out. A former Tanzanian foreign minister once noted at a conference that for him, India was a familiar land even as far back as the 1960s when he was a young boy. As he recalled, he crossed several lakes in then Tanganyika to reach school where his teacher was an Indian. Gandhi was the great chief of a friendly tribe and yes, the Indians who lived in east Africa at the time were very competent and helpful BUT they remained aloof.
Vision of the Future
This perception has not changed in two decades – that of an Indian who is respected for dedication and professionalism but is reluctant to assimilate and may in the process, often inadvertently, exude a degree of racial superiority. This is a deeply ingrained Indian mindset that needs to change and quickly, if the rhetoric of the Delhi Africa Summit is to be meaningfully realised.
PM Modi also dwelt on the potential for security cooperation and here the Peace Keeping domain and different aspects of maritime-naval cooperation offer many beneficial options. The goodwill in Africa for India’s military diplomacy and capacity-building is extensive and Delhi (read Minister Parrikar) needs to move swiftly towards implementation of these initiatives.
Africa’s ball is in Team Modi’s court.