India-Africa: Walk the Talk

The third and the largest edition of the India-Africa Forum Summit concluded on 29 October 2015 in New Delhi. Since its inception in 2008, the Summit has been viewed as an opportunity for a rising Asian power to court the fancy and partnership of one of the largest voting blocs at the United Nations (UN).

However, till 2011, the African Union (AU) only sent a delegation of 14 countries for the summit level talks. It is for the first time, and perhaps for the enduring will of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to establish himself as an international statesman, that instead of the usual 14 nominees of the AU, all 54 member states were represented at the Summit.

Over the years, the Indo-African relationship has been largely defined by the legacy of a shared colonial past rather than by the potential for a dynamic present and a promising future. While the Summit has made significant strides to reversing this, much of the results would depend on the operationalisation of the Strategic framework agreed upon by all the parties into operative agreements and treaties.

But, in what should count as a diplomatic win for PM Modi, the intent to not play second fiddle to China (comparisons against which rose in anticipation of the upcoming Sino-Africa Summit in December) was clearly visible as India coherently articulated a strategic partnership framework that elucidated all major areas of mutual cooperation, from space and technology to health and Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), while focussing on three major and immediate areas of focus: climate change treaty discussions in the upcoming 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP21), expansion of permanent members at UN Security Council (UNSC) and trade agreements facilitating South-South trade and protection of the rights of South against the leverages of the North.

Being a multilateral summit, the number of operational specifics that could be woven into the descriptive agreement remained limited. However, this does not, in any way, deter individual African nations from entering into specific, prescriptive agreements with India and vice versa.

The next logical step in this regard would be for India to follow up on the adopted framework and develop even stronger links at the embassy level of each AU member nation and at the same time, seek to expand the cumulative strength of the African Desk at the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA).

PM Modi realises that as African economies start to gain traction over the next decade, India must be ready to capitalise on the opportunity and gain access to these markets. The seeds of which must be sown today.

Therefore, in addition to the concessional credit of $10 billion, he also announced $600 million grant assistance and $100 million to an Africa Development Fund.

The promise to digitally connect Africa from Marrakesh to Mombasa and Cairo to Cape Town, by setting up industrial parks and a slew of other projects are all admirable initiatives.

Hence, while India might have lost out to China in the infrastructure race in Africa over the past two decades, its inherent competitive advantage in the information technology space would prove to be a defining feature of Indo-African cooperation over the next two decades.

Africa has also benefitted from India’s vast, even if inequitable, network of affordable healthcare facilities. Medical tourism in India is on the rise and Africans are slowly visiting the country to gain access to some of the best healthcare services in the world at a fraction of the cost.

Over time, with the right policy impetus, India could also climb up the value chain by moving from generics to supplying basic healthcare products and technologies to the entire continent.

Similarly, expanding on the already present African student community in India, the government announced 50,000 scholarships for Africans. Experiences of life saving medical treatment or life-enabling experiences such as education leave a very positive image of India in the minds of those who could possibly be the future leaders of the continent.

An example of this is the president of Somalia Hassan Sheikh Mohmud who fondly recalls his student days in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh.

Generations of Nigerian leaders have also studied in India. These endeavours of people to people diplomacy are capable of generating far more serious economic partnerships than basic investments in infrastructure – the Chinese model.

However, there was potential to achieve more. Previous two (2008 and 2011) Indo-African summits have remained high on lofty ideals and grand vision statements. The impetus is now on India to shift gears and inject this relationship with a newfound vigour and purpose.

In doing this, India must make a conscious effort to move from preambulatory niceties to addressing the operative complexities, central to both their strategic and diplomatic interests.

As the Foreign Minister of Uganda, Sam Kutesa said,

“If one chooses to live the life of a warrior, they must also be prepared to run. It is therefore important that our decision at this forum embrace the agenda and put in place clear mechanisms and time frames to support implementation.

(This piece co-authored with Koshtub Vohra was originally written for Gateway House.)

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