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by Chanakya Sen

New India's Vital Constituency 

There is a misty anecdote about Jawaharlal Nehru and Kwame Nkrumah, pan-Africanist and founder of independent Ghana. Nkrumah visited India in 1958 and found the hill weather of the north a little too chilly. The Indian Prime Minister personally came to see him off at a railway station with a surprise gift- his own warm overcoat with woolen scarf and gloves that fitted Nkrumah’s frame perfectly. This single gesture symbolised how vital Africa was to India in those days.

Nehruvian India was at a historical juncture that rendered Africa a significant foreign policy destination. India’s de-colonisation preceded that of African nations. Independent India naturally worked for African freedom from the same European masters with solidarity that only the fellow oppressed possess. At global diplomatic fora, India was a ‘Frontline State’ for African liberation and lobbied tirelessly for the rights of Africans to govern themselves. Though this appears purely idealistic, India had pragmatic reasons to want the rollback of European colonialism wherever it existed. The combination of Cold War military interventionism and un-relinquished colonialism was too mortal a security threat for poor defenceless countries, of which India was one and Africa had many. Nehru harnessed African contributions to unite under the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which was the only practical defence mechanism for the weak against superpower adventurism.  

In the 1960s, India faced stiff challenges from China not only militarily but also for African allegiances. Maoists peddled ‘Afro-Asianism’, more confrontationist than NAM, and truncated Indian influence in Africa. Chinese strategic competition for Africa was peppered with economic and military assistance, which India was unable to match. To this day, China remains one of the biggest exporters of weapons to African nations. China has chiseled ‘military diplomacy’ with most African countries in recent years and contributed to the proliferation of the 500 million-odd small arms that have poisoned Africa.

Under Indira Gandhi, India paid “exclusive attention to establish equations with new African leaders” (JN Dixit) and also began assessing African countries for their economic potential. The notion that many African states fell within the Indian Ocean rim area gave a new strategic importance to Africa. India and Africa tried unsuccessfully to get the Diego Garcia islands de-nuclearised and sterilised from superpower meddling. The struggle for closing down the US military base in Diego Garcia remains integral to the struggle for a nuclear arms-free Africa, thanks to its proximity with Seychelles and Mauritius.

But for NAM summits and anti-apartheid cohesion, Africa was woefully neglected by India in the late 80s and 90s. This was the period when commentators hailed the rise of a new confident India, pursuing self-interest in world affairs without compunctions. Relations with the US and the EU, the two powerhouses of the post-Cold War era, were accorded top priority. Foreign policy based purely on nostalgia or principles was pilloried. Africa contained a lot that met new India’s requirements for purposeful engagement, but the realpolitikers in Delhi who believed that  ‘big thinking’ should not get bogged down by small fish, failed to see this potential.

The euphoria of normalisation of relations with the US and the talk of India attaining Great Power status blinded decision-makers to the vital task of redefining India’s interests in the African continent. The Indian foreign ministry’s Africa desks continued to produce voluminous printed matter diligently, but the establishment had turned to ‘sexier’ subjects. The missing link in India’s ‘extended neighbourhood’ concept was Africa. As C Raja Mohan described the apathy, “the idea of Africa as a whole tended to fall off the Indian radar screen.”

That neglecting Africa in the post-Cold War era was an anomaly became apparent when the shackles on free trade were removed by successive waves of economic liberalisation in India. The sleeping giant of Indian entrepreneurship and industry (preserved intact in the 1.4 million strong Indian Diaspora of South and East Africa) suddenly unbound itself and began searching for markets, technology dissemination and investment. It was in this context of a missed economic opportunity that the former Indian foreign minister Jaswant Singh uttered a simple truth that was cobwebbed until 2002: “Africans are our neighbours.” Anyone with a minimal knowledge of trade theory and transportation costs will understand what he meant.

Subsequently, India launched a ‘Focus Africa’ initiative to “cash in on the continent’s burgeoning market” (EXIM Policy, 2003). Areas identified for expanding export opportunities in southern Africa include engineering, chemicals, textiles, plastics and pharmaceuticals. In the energy sector, Indian majors are showing their better understanding of developing country factories by revamping oil refineries in Madagascar, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Chad and Cameroon. Senegal and Ghana are now major trading partners with India. Burkina Faso and Cote-d’Ivoire are discovering that Indian-made buses are cheaper and more suited to African roads than costly European autos. 

Indian technology transfer and cheap imports based on comparative advantage certainly benefit Africans, but a word of caution is warranted here. India must tread a different path from those do-gooders who come to Africa wearing pity on their sleeves and greed in their minds. Several Indian analysts have bought into the idea that India could be a major supplier in farming, water resource management, financial management etc. through New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), a scheme based on neo-classical growth models that increases disparities. People’s movements all over Africa are opposing NEPAD’s structural violence.

Another contentious issue is the role of persons of Indian origin (‘Asians’) as a rising middle stratum of society between whites and black Africans in South Africa and Kenya. NEPAD and other bilateral economic exchanges risk being hijacked by these prominent Indians who are greatly resented by the black majority due to their wealth and exclusivity, a la the Chinese merchants dominating Southeast Asia. Nehru was acutely aware of the ambivalent role played by Indian businessmen in African economies and advised them to abide by the norms and needs of their countries of residence.

The new India now aggressively promotes Non-Resident Indians (NRI), especially the business class who can invest back home. The least ‘Focus Africa’ can do is to encourage ethical businessmen of Indian origin in South and East Africa to prevent popular perceptions that Indian elites impoverish the mass of Africans. Manu Chandaria, for instance, is a highly respected Indian trader who has given to Kenyan society as much as he has received. The instance of Idi Amin forcibly exiling Indians in Uganda in 1971 as a step toward ‘nativisation’ of African economy has to be guarded against.

A special sector for joint ventures with win-win guarantees for India and Africa is health. The fight to acquire affordable medicines for HIV AIDS and other diseases places India and Africa in the same boat at the WTO. Though it has been ruled that public health is a valid ground for non-applicability of the TRIPS agreement, it is not yet clear how African nations can set up domestic generic drug production capacity on a sustainable basis. India can play a pivotal role with its vibrant pharmaceutical industry that caters to low-end users. 

A related issue is general convergence of Indian and African interests on Intellectual Property Rights at the WTO. Both India and Africa are minefields of traditional knowledge and biodiversity that are being poached by western transnational prospectors. Both have struck common ground on the inviolability of their sacred plant and animal species in the ‘biotech century.’ With the membership of the WTO rising every year, block votes and lobbies like at the UN are common. India and Africa can jointly spearhead the movement for protecting nature from gene imperialists. Foreign policy pundits who frown at ‘moralistic causes’ should rethink whether preservation of one’s own techniques and wealth is pontification or self-interest.

The battle against bio-piracy also punctures the argument that large developing countries at the WTO- India, Brazil and Mexico- have more in common with the developed countries than with the poor developing countries. South-South linkages do wonders, especially in crucial matters like industrialised country market access for producers of the developing world. 

India is the world’s leader in information technology and both the UN and African governments have recognised that partnering with India in this field will help bridge the global digital divide. India is already moving into technical capacity building, low-priced computing, e-governance and several other fields in Africa. India can truly be able to conduct ‘economic diplomacy’ by transmitting its IT know-how to Africans at rates that are reasonable and profitable.  

Last but not least, Africa is strategically valuable to India. Technology and expertise sharing are slowly picking up in the defence sector, especially between India and South Africa. Both countries are aiming to reduce dependency on the US, EU and Russia for sophisticated weaponry through mutual collaborations. In the high seas, the Indian navy is an active player organising joint patrolling with likeminded forces. Considering the Islamist threats to both India and Africa, information sharing for counter-terrorism is also bound to be beneficial. India, which is pitching for permanent membership of the UN Security Council, can further boost African peacekeeping capabilities through its pool of mission-experienced personnel.  

To conclude with an African proverb, return to old watering holes for more than water; friends are there to meet you. Africa must be returned to its rightful position as a vital constituency of Indian foreign policy.


 

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