A scholarly African journey: Can priorities match principles?

In 2011, India's Ministry of External Affairs commissioned a commemorative volume to coincide with the India-Africa Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, that was jointly released by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the 50-odd African heads of government

Tarun Basu Feb 27, 2022
India-Africa Relations: Changing Horizons; Author: Rajiv Bhatia; Publisher Routledge

In 2011, India's Ministry of External Affairs commissioned a commemorative volume to coincide with the India-Africa Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, that was jointly released by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the 50-odd African heads of government. Writing in that slickly produced one-in-a-kind coffee table book, Jean Ping, then Chairperson of the African Union Commission, wrote: "Africa and India are bound together by history, geography, economy and culture........India is rapidly becoming a major global economic power that derives strength from its huge domestic market, human capital development, and advancement in science and technology. Africa, which is India's next door neighbor, is widely regarded as the next and perhaps the last global frontier whose development potentials remain to be tapped."

Over a decade and three India-Africa summits later, has that potential been even partly realised? The answer is possibly a yes and a no, and it's not so much the lack of political will that inhibits the full realization of this potential, but a host of often factors, including the pandemic, which upended noble intentions around the world.     

Rajiv Bhatia, former Indian envoy to Kenya and South Africa, in his meticulously researched, 219-page scholarly offering titled "India-African relations: Changing Horizons" delves into the multidimensional subject of the India-Africa relationship in a way that few others have done before.  Former Indian foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh called it a "masterly dissertation of the past, present and future of the India-Africa relationship", a relationship that has been called a "perennial bond" between two peoples whose total population spans a third of humanity. 

The book is a veritable tour d'horizon of not just India-African relations over the past three decades, drawn from the author's personal experience of having worked, travelled and lived in different parts of Africa, but a capsuled history of Africa itself - from the Indian perspective. It's a diplomat's labour of love for a continent,  by whose natural beauty he got seduced from his first posting in Nairobi, and then after he retired was imbued with a missionary zeal to pass on this passion for Africa "to the next generation of Africanists in the world and all those who are interested in Africa of the present and future".

So, despite the seemingly narrow bilateral focus of its title, the book delves deep into Africa's ties with the major 'global actors', reserving an entire chapter with its evolving ties with China, a country that has been progressively strengthening its position in Africa, so much so that 'Chinaafrica' is now a separate branch of academic study in international relations. 

According to a recent academic report in The Conversation,  a research-driven website, between 2000 and 2012 China undertook more than 1,700 projects in over 50 African countries, amounting to upwards of $75 billion. In contrast, as per the book, "India has executed 194 development projects in 37 African countries and is currently working to complete 77 additional projects in 29 countries with a total outlay of $11.6 billion". 

Unlike China, 70 per cent of whose aid has been devoted to infrastructural developments - accounting for 30 per cent of Africa's infrastructure spending - India's assistance to Africa is more nuanced, more need and skills-oriented,  geared to create capacities and enhance citizens' abilities through appropriate training and technology, to meet their own developmental requirements. It is complemented by its soft power in the shape of movies and music - an area in which China can compete little - and an over three million-strong diaspora that has made its impact the business and cultural life of Africa.

India's aid not showpiece like China's, in the shape of stadiums and convention centres,  which has been accused of cultural colonisation, local labor exploitation and usurping the country's mineral resources.    

In the author's assessment,  India, despite sound policy perspectives, has, however, run short on two counts - one, despite quick approvals, disbursements of loan amounts moved slowly, a standard complaint regarding the red-tapism of Indian bureaucracy; and, two, the amount frozen, since the last India-Africa summit of October 2015, was "far too inadequate for Africa's needs and expectations" which, he says was possibly due to India's own financial constraints. 

Also, often there is a big gap between "declaration and delivery", which is a common complaint among India's aid recipients, whether in Africa or Asia.   

So, in a way, though there is an abundance of rhetoric and lofty ideals regarding Africa - Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in 2014, soon after assuming office, that "I have made Africa a top priority for India's foreign and economic policy" - that is not always matched by deeds, and that is where India often falls short.

'The fundamental trait on which China and India diverse stems from their long-term goals," writes Bhatia perceptively. "Going by the nature of policies followed, it is evident that China looks for dominance, control and strategic gains. India, on the other, looks for little more than partnership that is based on equality, mutual respect and benefit."

Despite all the high-sounding pronouncements on Africa, one point that needs greater attention of foreign policy makers is what Bhatia points to the "striking ignorance about Africa and an inexplicable disinterest in why friendship  with its people  is in accord with India's history, defining principles and national interest....."  

African students, many living in semi-urban pockets of India's major cities, as they cannot afford safer neighborhoods, are often victims of racial prejudice, and are abused, assaulted and even driven out of homes. A few have been killed by mobs accusing them, mostly falsely, of sorcery or criminal activities. 

This has led to a significant drop in African students in India. 

Even mainstream media has shown surprising disinterest in Africa - other than perpetuating cultural stereotypes - and many journalists are surprised that Africa comprises 54 countries, with as many differences among them as Asian nations have among each other.  This is why reading of this in-depth book on the fascinating continent is such a must.

Bhatia's scholastic work notwithstanding, and plea for Indian foreign policy to accord a "higher priority" to Africa, fast-changing global geopolitics, India's own budgetary juggling in a Covid-strained world necessitating more allocation to the country's own developmental imperatives, may, unfortunately, put Africa on the back burner of India's policy priorities, at least in the near term.       

Title: India-Africa Relations: Changing Horizons; Author: Rajiv Bhatia; Publisher Routledge; Pg 219; Price: Rs 995

(The reviewer, a veteran editor and journalists, is Editorial Adviser, South Asia Monitor)

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