India in Africa

With its commitment to democracy and human rights, India will face particular scrutiny in Africa as it tries to chart a principled course in stormy seas.
Kanishk Tharoor
10 April 2008

New Delhi this week played host to a summit of African leaders, lured to India by the promise of strengthened economic ties with the rising "Asian giant". The event was smaller than its counterpart two years earlier in Beijing, when China wined and dined fifty African countries. But the signal is clear: Indian ambitions are as global as Chinese ones. New Delhi knows it cannot afford to cede further "strategic space" to Beijing. And Africa, which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh acclaimed as the "land of awakening" and "our mother continent", is a growing arena for the contest of Asia's duelling realpolitiks.

Sticking to the official line, Singh refused to brook the notion that China and India are squaring up for a "Great Game" in Africa. "We are not in any race or competition with China or any other country," he insisted at the summit's closing press conference. "The desire of India and Africa to work together is not new." In at least one respect, Singh is correct. India's history of supporting anti-colonial movements and its prominent role in the Non-Aligned Movement do instil a political ballast and pre-history to India's relations with African nations that China lacks. While Chinese commentators invoke the Middle Kingdom's ancient 15th century ties to Africa through the voyages of Zheng He, India boasts a contemporary 20th century history of support of and involvement in struggles across Africa.

Nevertheless, the focus of this week's conference was very much on the bottom line. No analyst looking at India's dealings with Africa can help but gauge them against China's. Trade between China and Africa far outstrips that between the latter and India: $73.3 billion to India's paltry $30 billion. The massive industrial zone of the Pearl River Delta teems with African distributors sourcing goods back across the Indian Ocean. Chinese companies and workers scour the breadth of Africa, braving hotspots like Sudan, Nigeria and Ogaden in Ethiopia in their quest for resources and construction contracts.

As much as India also hungers for markets and resources, Singh was meticulous in glossing the deals cemented at the summit with the sheen of good intentions. "We share a colonial past," he said. "We don't seek to impose any pattern in Africa... India wishes to see the 21st century as the century of Asia and Africa with the people of the two continents working together to promote inclusive globalisation."

Since embarking on a program of systematic liberalising reform, Indian ties with Africa were undermined by a re-orientation towards Europe and the United States. Keen not to lose further ground, India has now pledged to strengthen economic ties with the continent. New Delhi announced a preferential duty-free scheme for the world's fifty least developed countries (34 of them in Africa), shredding over 94% of India's notoriously arcane tariffs.

India has inflated its line of credit to Africa from $2.15 billion to over $9.7 billion. Much of that extra capital will go to building technology training centres, electrical grids, railways and other projects designed to boost the continent's physical and professional infrastructure. New Delhi is placing heavy emphasis on building technological and human capacity. Drawing on India's reputation for IT excellence and know-how, the African Union is using a $1 billion of Indian funds to set up the Pan-African E-network Project to develop internet infrastructure across the continent, particularly in the arena of promoting "telemedicine" and "tele-education" programs.

Cooperative ambitions extend from the lofty plane of the fibre-optic to the soil. The majority of Indians and Africans still till the earth, and development programs will have to include serious efforts to make their agricultural sectors more efficient and productive. Indian and African leaders both recognise the potential of their countries to be the "granaries of the world", particularly at a time of growing food crisis.

While African leaders were drawn to New Delhi for its new found wealth, the challenges shared by both India and Africa - with their vast underbellies of poverty and lack - make Indian involvement in the continent more credible. Alpha Oumar Konare, the former president of the African Union, urged India not to treat Africa as a "mere market for raw materials, purchased at low prices with no advantage to us... We want to deal with equality, mutual respect and mutual benefit... We want to deal with other countries on an equal footing." With its commitment to democracy and human rights, India will face particular scrutiny in Africa as it tries to chart a principled course in stormy seas.


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