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BRP Bhaskar: Befriending Africa again
November 03, 2015
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

In what has been described as India’s biggest diplomatic outreach to Africa, Prime Minister Narendra Modi played host to governmental leaders from more than 50 countries, 41 of them heads of state or governments, in the last week of October.

The occasion was the third Africa-India Forum Summit. The two previous summits were small affairs as the African Union had limited the number of participants to a maximum of 15. With the ceiling off, India went all out to ensure the widest participation in the five-day meet.

Libya was the only African country which was unrepresented. It was not invited as it was in turmoil when the preparations began and there was no effective government to deal with.

In the one and a half years he has been in office, Modi has visited many countries, big and small. One of the objectives of his foreign travels has been to enlist the support of UN members for reform of the world body, giving India a place in an expanded Security Council. In his address to the summit, he pointed out that India and Africa, which together account for a third of the world’s population, do not have adequate say in the powerful Security Council.

Animated by a clear vision of world history, India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had placed great emphasis on development of close relations with all Asian and African countries. Most of them were still under colonial rule at the time, and he vigorously championed the cause of their freedom.

Even before Independence, as head of the interim government set up by the departing colonial regime, Nehru convened an Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi. He was also the prime mover behind the Afro-Asian Conference held at Bandung, Indonesia, in 1956. As they became free, almost all the countries of the two continents joined India, Egypt and Yugoslavia in the Non-Aligned Movement.

Nehru instituted a scholarship scheme for African students. By the 1960s, the beneficiaries of the scheme were in influential positions in several newly independent countries of the continent. The scheme is still in place, and it brings about 22,000 African students to India each year.

The ties with Africa weakened in the 1990s as the Indian government embarked upon economic liberalisation and rearranged its priorities. By 2000, China, which had prospered after it switched to market economy, stepped in to fill the breach.

Modi, who has a pathological aversion to the memory of Nehru, who had held Hindutva forces at bay during the communally charged days of Partition, avoided mention of his name in his prepared address, which listed six African winners of the Nobel Prize. Much to his discomfiture, several African leaders, in their speeches, made warm references to Nehru and Indira Gandhi and their contributions to Africa’s cause. “The Prime Minister listened, then swivelled back and forth on his chair and finally left for bilateral meetings,” wrote one correspondent.

To express their displeasure at Modi’s insult to Nehru’s memory, Congressmen stayed away from the dinner he hosted for the African leaders. South African President Jacob Zuma set aside protocol and drove to Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s residence to meet her.

Such irritants notwithstanding, the summit carried forward the effort to put India’s relations with Africa on a firm footing once again, initiated by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the 2008 summit. On that occasion he offered a line of credit of $5.4 billion. At the next summit in 2011, he added $5 billion more to it. Also, India wrote off the debts of Mozambique, Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

Modi followed it up with an offer of $10 billion in concessional credit over the next five years and $600 million by way of fresh grants. While this is a step forward, much more needs to be done to improve economic relations and to regain the high standing India once had in Africa.

China had replaced the United States as Africa’s largest partner in 2009 and its trade with the continent now stands at $222 billion. India’s trade with Africa, which was only $1 billion in 1995, has grown to $71.5 billion. There is clearly vast scope for further improvement.

The summit showed that the enormous goodwill generated by India’s support to the liberation struggles is still intact. This offers a firm basis for expanding cooperation in varied fields as envisaged in the India Africa Framework for Strategic Cooperation which was drawn up during the summit and the Delhi Declaration which was adopted at the end of it.

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 The author is a political analyst of reckoning

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