It’s time to waka waka

The recent India-Africa summit held in Ethiopia may mark the beginning of a new phase of Indian engagement with Africa. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh held out a credit line of $5.7 billion and a slew of projects for African countries. The economic sinews of Indian foreign policy are clearly giving it much greater reach and, hopefully, influence than before.

Several commentators have remarked that India has come a long way from the airy resolutions and vacuous statements that characterised the era of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). But before we throw out the baby with the bath water, it may be useful to consider just how the current engagement with Africa differs from that of the past and what might be learnt from the experience of that period.
Indian policy towards Africa began to take shape even before India formally attained Independence. It essentially rested on two pillars: a firm commitment to Africa’s struggle against colonialism, and an effort to ensure that the emerging institutions of international politics reflected the concerns of the weak and subjugated. India’s engagement with Africa was fired by idealism but was also deeply political. The first steps in giving shape to this policy were taken in September 1946 when South Africa promulgated the so-called Ghetto Act, which sought to segregate the Indian community in that country by restricting their ability to purchase and control land. The vice-president of the newly-constituted interim government of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, despatched a strong diplomatic contingent to the United Nations (UN) and piloted a resolution in the General Assembly calling for a repeal of the Act. This set the tone of India’s policy with regard to racial discrimination. When the system of apartheid was formally instituted, India was quick to impose sanctions by severing its trade and travel links with South Africa. Later, in 1961, when South Africa sought to join the British Commonwealth, Nehru’s India blocked the move by a veiled threat to relinquish its own membership of the Commonwealth. During these years, India also extended its support to other African countries that were caught in the vice of colonial rule. It scuppered an attempt by South Africa to annex the erstwhile League of Nations “mandate” of South-West Africa (present-day Namibia), opposed Britain’s brutal suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, and despatched an Army brigade under the UN umbrella to Congo in 1961 to prevent that country from being rent apart by a dangerous Molotov cocktail of civil war, meddling by colonial powers and superpower competition.
All this not only forged close political ties between India and Africa, but also gave India unprecedented legitimacy and standing in international affairs. Yet Nehru was no uncritical supporter of African leaders and their policies. He openly disapproved, for instance, of Ghana’s first Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah’s attempts to promote a personality cult.
In the post-Nehru years, the link with Africa was subsumed under the NAM. Nehru himself had never been particularly enthusiastic about such an organisation. And after his departure, India’s engagement with the non-aligned countries of Africa grew routinised and captive to rhetorical sloganeering. Indira Gandhi sought to add a fresh dimension to this relationship by focusing on the inequities of the international economic system and calling for a New International Economic Order (NIEO) which would enable greater participation by and benefits to the developing countries. Although some of these ideas were influential, the package failed to gain purchase on the major powers. At the famous North-South summit at Cancun in 1981 and at a follow-on conference in New Delhi the next year, Indira Gandhi deplored the “protectionism of the Western countries” and called for “collective self-reliance” by the poor countries. This was an early articulation of the concept of South-South cooperation. But translating it into effective action proved rather difficult. This was the period when many developing countries fell into the grip of international financial institutions, incurring public debts that few of them were able to surmount. Besides, there was the contemporaneous example of East Asian countries (including China) that made rapid economic strides by embracing liberalisation. By the time India followed suit, the Cold War was at an end, rendering both NAM and NIEO empty acronyms.
After a gap of nearly two decades, Indian policy towards Africa is yet again anchored in certain guiding principles and key interests. In this phase, though, economic relations have come to the fore. India’s approach is shaped by the burgeoning needs of its economy in a number of areas: quality coal and oil for its energy requirements; key minerals for its fertiliser (and hence food) requirements; iron ore and non-ferrous metals for its industries. Africa is also an attractive market for Indian manufacturing and service industries. Lastly, there is the concern about China’s large footprint in Africa and its efforts to corner natural resources in the continent. The Indian private sector was quicker than the government in getting off the blocks and has made its presence felt in Africa. But unlike Chinese companies, which are effectively arms of the government, Indian companies have been hamstrung by the government’s inability to keep pace with their needs and ideas. The Prime Minister’s visit will hopefully galvanise the official machinery.
Yet, a purely economic relationship can only go so far in advancing our position and interests in Africa. New Delhi needs to think hard about what kind of political engagement it is willing to undertake. India’s stand on the ongoing Libyan crisis — it abstained on the UN resolution and is now supportive of the African Union’s efforts to facilitate a ceasefire — suggests that it is not shy of overt engagement in African matters. This is essential not merely to buy support for India’s UN Security Council candidature, but also to signal its willingness to provide independent and credible leadership in international affairs. The history of its relations with Africa may provide New Delhi with some intellectual resources to move towards a more robust political engagement with the continent.

Srinath Raghavan is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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