PM Narendra Modi’s historic four nation tour of Africa (July 7th to July 11th) was in essence a sincere attempt to add a new dimension to his government’s motto of making India a leading global power. The tour succeeded in large measure – by strengthening bilateral relations, enhancing India’s strategic, economic and soft power aspirations, and bringing India closer to Africa. NRI Achievers bring to readers a reading of this initiative …
Right from the time he assumed office, Prime Minister Modi has oft been lauded for opening up new vistas for India, with his setting foot on countries that have almost forgotten what it means to receive an Indian leader. For instance, Modi’s visit to Kenya and Mozambique took place after 35 and 34 years of time span since an Indian PM had visited them. Though Manmohan Singh also visited South Africa in 2013 as Prime Minister, it was more in the context of a BRICS Summit than any exclusive bilateral visit to further one-on-one cooperation. Modi, on the contrary, by undertaking dedicated bilateral missions to key nations of southern Africa, has signalled that he values these countries intrinsically for what they are.
While this visit came after two plus years of his assuming office, it would indeed be wrong to presume that Africa has been off his radar – recall that it was only last year that Delhi hosted the 3rd India-Africa Forum Summit (IAFS-III), when for the first time ever all 54 Heads of State/Government of African countries, as well as the President of African Union were present. The PM’s visit followed closely on the heels of two high-ranking visits – the first by Vice-President Hamid Ansari to Morocco and Tunisia in North Africa from the 30th of May to the 3rd of June; and the second by President Pranab Mukherjee to Ghana, the Ivory Coast and Namibia in West Africa, between the 12th and 17th of June. Modi’s visit to South and East Africa was very much a part of this chronology, and represents a sincere attempt by India to reach out to all parts of the Dark Continent.
The sum and substance of PM Modi’s Africa tour may be condensed into a few succinct paragraphs, which are presented here without much ado. The first has to do with strengthening India Africa connects. At every stop, Modi supplicated India’s past links with the continent and the shared experience of struggle against colonial powers. Modi has also rooted for future cooperation in the face of competition from China. In Mozambique, Modi offered to share India’s expertise in agriculture infrastructure. He also noted that healthcare was a sector where India’s capabilities would match the needs of Mozambique. In Tanzania, Modi offered US$ 500 millions of concessional credit for water-supply connections to 17 cities, in addition to an existing US$ 100 million. The prime minister also offered assistance in public health, with the supply of Indian medicines and equipment. In South Africa, Modi sought a partnership between businesses of both countries which, he says, could give new shape to India-Africa partnership and drive it to new levels. The other important aspect of the connect – our Diaspora. Modi addressed meetings of Indian communities in all four countries, underlining the links between Africa’s east coast and India’s west coast and their common connect across the Indian Ocean.
The second important aspect of Modi’s visit was economic outreach. Economics – commerce and trade have always been one of the key dockets when India interacts with Africa. But here too what incredible Mr. Modi did was to flagship the ‘Make in India’ campaign that excited the whole of Africa. With the Chinese economy sinking and its absorption rates for African minerals at a new nadir, African governments and people are on the lookout for an alternative big Asian power that can generate steady export revenues for them, and also help them industrialise. India seems to punch the clock as the best surrogate to many Africans as a preferred, democratic partner whose outreach is not totally state-driven and whose private sector is increasing its footprint on the continent. The Prime Minister’s personal interest in connecting Indian agribusinesses with African nations for food security, and accent on joint exploration and harnessing of energy sources is a big draw in Africa.
Some sardonic sections of the Western commentariat seek to club India into the same category as China, as a mineral-grabber that is out to loot Africa and denude it of its vast natural wealth. These critics question India’s real intentions in befriending African nations. Modi needs to disprove these cynics by not only offering more novel schemes to bring Indian technical and educational expertise to Africa, but also show how well-hooked India and Africa are in the twenty-first century. We need export markets as we industrialise, and Africa has the youthful demography and the rising purchasing power that will eventually take our two-way trade to prominence. It is wise to understand that we will be handicapped unless Africa grows in wealth and power. And without Africa on our side in dealing with the series of mega-crises that confront this planet, we possibly may never metamorphose into that great power in world politics that we so desire to be. Our fates are thus convolute not merely due to geography, identical views at the United Nations or common historical experiences as colonised people, but also due to the fundamental complementarities of the future that awaits both sides. So while China has been heralding its South-South cooperation model as a resounding success in Africa, the absence of a human resource component, a transparency element, and a social sector or democracy angle in that model seems to suggest that India has an indispensable place on the continent. Especially so as we already occupy a rather special place in the hearts and minds of the African people, going back to centuries.
The third aspect to Modi’s Africa sojourn is his adeptness in building personal empathy with African leaders. Personal connects with leaders has been a key facet of Modi’s diplomacy ever since coming to office in 2014. Of the four countries visited, three have had elections in recent years — Kenya in 2013 bringing president Uhuru Kenyatta to power, Mozambique in 2014 that elected president Filipe Nyusi and Tanzania in 2015 that saw president John Magufuli assume office.
Modi had met Kenyatta and Nyusi last year while this was his first meeting with Magufuli. The Indian PM invited the Tanzanian president to visit India, which was accepted. South Africa’s Jacob Zuma is better-known to the prime minister, given that he has met and conferred with him on several occasions, like the annual Brazil-India-Russia-China-South Africa (BRICS) meetings and during the India-Africa summit last year.
Terrorism was a topic that figured in all the key discussions PM Modi had with African leaders. In fact, dog-earing a consensus on terrorism was a vital theme that took up some heavy-duty confabulations, moreso with Africa seeing its own fair share of the problem, what with the threat from the Sunni Islamic State in the north of Libya and Tunisia to the Boko Haram, which draws its ideology from the Al-Qaeda in West Africa.
Make in India. India’s new mantra inviting the world to come to India and manufacture there had its own pre-eminent place on Modi’s agenda as well. During his visit to South Africa, Modi invited defence businesses to set up manufacturing bases in India, which could service the domestic requirements of India and South Africa as well as export to third countries.
Food security. India signed a long-term agreement for the import of pulses from Mozambique. Mozambique grows the commodity without much consumption. The pact will help India tide-over the shortage of pulses in the country that has led to uneven spikes and spurts in the prices of dal. Significant given it was only last month that India’s cabinet had cleared a proposal to enter into an agreement with Mozambique for importing 100,000 tonnes of pulses in 2016-17, with an option to scale it up to 200,000 tonnes by 2020-2021.
Securing the east coast. One of the hallmarks of Mr. Modi’s foreign policy has been an emphasis on defence diplomacy to boost India’s position as a nett security provider for fellow developing countries. Ergo, the choice of the four African nations on his itinerary this time was no coincidence, but possibly part of a well-thought-out doctrine to give primacy to the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), whose westernmost edge is defined by these countries. The east coast of Africa is the flank to which India’s expanding naval and commercial strategy needs to be aligned with, if it is to emerge as a shaper of stability and peace in the IOR. It is therefore noteworthy that Modi’s government has purposefully re-initiated a serious defence dialogue with Mozambique in 2015, after years of neglect. I recall meeting the Deputy Minister of National Defence of Mozambique, Patricio Jose, earlier this year when he said to me that they “eagerly look up to India” to enhance their coastal surveillance, military training and maritime security capabilities. Seen from this perspective, it now seems that Modi’s mega-modernisation project of ‘Sagar Mala’ – which involves coastal area development, port infrastructure advancement, connectivity and sea-based industrial synergies, is not merely a domestic policy priority but is in fact interlinked to our strategic drive to be the defence and logistical partner for Africa’s eastern coast.
Modi has already been to Mauritius and Seychelles — two pivotal African countries off the mainland — and ramped up India’s security assistance to them. Now, by drawing in the countries of east Africa into a trustful embrace where they can have faith in India to share and transmit sensitive technology and know-how in intelligence, reconnaissance and training, he is making a proactive push to be not merely an economic actor on the continent but also a political one. The message sent out by the Prime Minister and his team to the continent was that “we are not here to exploit” and “we want to be partners in development.”