- The India-Africa link is a richer tapestry than the recent Summit would indicate
Nov 5, 2015-New Delhi has just played host to a vast gathering of Heads of State and Government from the African continent. There have been comparable Summit meetings in the past that brought African leaders to Delhi but nothing on quite this scale. This great meeting showed India making a special effort to renew ties with Africa, a huge and diverse continent that has had much to do with India in the past. Exchanges between the two have been going on for centuries and in modern times Africa has been a particular focus of Indian attention, so the Delhi event was a significant effort to renew and revive long-established ties. There is much for the two sides to build on, and while economy and business were the chief focus, the deep-rooted historical links also claimed attention.
Recently, and even without the stimulus of the Summit, the India-Africa theme has become prominent in a number of ways: the long and distinctive connection between them was celebrated in an exhibition that showed how people from Africa had become part of the medieval Indian elite and risen to positions of high authority in some of the great Indian states, especially in the Deccan. The same exhibition had been an eye-opener in New York’s Harlem, where visitors flooded in to see how the African diaspora found a place in India, not as an exploited group as in many other places, but as participants in the leadership.
There are of course more recent associations to be acknowledged and celebrated. Afro-Asian solidarity was the basic cement of nonalignment, and the first few years of independence, which came about more or less simultaneously on both sides of the Indian Ocean, were a time of unprecedented closeness and cooperation between them. Nehru was the legendary figure who brought them close; as many have remarked, the Indian hosts at the Summit preferred to draw a veil over him but several African visitors paid due tribute to Nehru. In his day, cooperation between the newly emerged countries was valued for the mutual support it provided in consolidating new-found political independence though it was still a long way from the sort of economic cooperation agreed at the Summit, for material resources were in short supply, yet India provided what it could through programmes like ITEC (Indian Technical Cooperation). Standing on one’s own feet was the shared aspiration and Indian technical assistance was intended to strengthen indigenous capacity in partner-nations.That was the cold war era and many donors were caught up in rivalry to outshine each other through aid to the developing countries, especially in Africa. They set up large, prestigious projects, among the most spectacular of which was the TanZam built through assistance from China, which was at that stage close to the Soviet bloc. Everything for the railway, including manpower, came from China, and the project aimed at delivering quick and effective results even more imparting training and manufacturing skills. The TanZam project itself ran into difficulty after its impressive start and has had to be resuscitated in recent years with infusion of Chinese capital, but yet it showed what was needed and what could be done. With hindsight it can also be seen as the first step in China’s constantly enlarging investment in Africa, which continues apace and can be a benchmark for efforts by
others, including the recent India-Africa Summit.
The Indian diaspora was not much in evidence during the Summit but that should not obscure its significance. Colonial policy in British times created conditions for substantial movement of people from India to different parts of Africa, where they prospered and contributed to the advancement and liberation of society. The Mahatma, of course, was the paradigm. In recent times, strong efforts have been made to bind India’s widespread diaspora more closely to the mother country, and though this theme was not prominent in Summit-related activity, there is much to acknowledge and celebrate, for while official colonial policy facilitated emigration, there was also supplementary non-official movement by enterprising people who set out to make fresh lives for themselves across the seas. Many were professionals who contributed much, for instance in Ethiopia, where Indian teachers have left an indelible mark. As the Summit concentrated on economic issues, with the aim of encouraging state-to-state exchanges and also Indian investment in Africa, some of the other, ancillary themes relating to India-Africa relations did not receive much mention. It should be expected, however, that there will be other top-level meetings in the future where the picture can be filled out and made more complete.
The most substantial move by India at the Summit was the announcement of concessional credit to Africa of $10 billion. This can help place relations on an altogether different basis, for lack of adequate financing has long been seen as the biggest impediment to the development of economic relations. Finally, it would seem, India has the capacity and the appetite to act in a manner and on a scale that can yield important results. With this latest move it can be expected that Indian investment in Africa and its trade will move rapidly upward. The private sector can be expected to play its part though it has not until now had much to show—maybe that is due to change.
The matter of India’s candidature for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council was one of the big issues at the Summit. This is a complicated matter, for the UN Charter is so designed as to make it very difficult to amend its provisions even when the large majority of the members may so desire. The permanent members have to be on board if Charter amendment is to happen, and as yet there is little sign of that. Moreover, though the Summit favoured Indian membership, Africa itself has legitimate demands that are not to be set aside: though it is the largest bloc numerically, the African group has not found representation among the permanent members. No African candidate has as yet emerged of the others as the group’s favoured representative, but African representation is an issue that demands consideration as the move for Charter amendment gathers momentum.
The India-Africa relationship is a richer tapestry than the recent Summit would indicate. Much remains to be explored and renewed, in such fields as culture, people-to-people links, and joint future activities. Trade is still limited and demands imaginative initiatives like the Indian Ocean Rim concept that briefly flourished before going into hibernation. Given the vast potential, the recent Summit should encourage a whole range of fresh activity in many fields, for which the way may now have been cleared.
Published: 05-11-2015 08:44