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BRP Bhaskar: A push to Africa outreach
February 28, 2017
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

Vice-President Hamid Ansari’s visits to Rwanda and Uganda last week marked another step forward in India’s Africa Outreach initiative, designed to place its ties with the countries of the continent on a firm footing after two decades of neglect.

The third India-Africa Summit, held in New Delhi in 2015, was attended by a record number of heads of states and governments, and convinced Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the need to revitalise ties with the continent which is a vast treasure-house of natural resources and is set to emerge as a big market. With its numbers in the United Nations it also has the potential to provide many valuable allies in global affairs.

In the 16 months since the summit, President Pranab Mukherjee, the Vice-President and the Prime Minister have visited more than a dozen countries in the continent. Many Central ministers have also undertaken missions to the continent.

On emerging as a free country, India, under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, had taken a keen interest in the liberation movements of Africa and vigorously supported them in international forums. Africa had a special place in the minds of India’s freedom-fighters as it was there that Mahatma Gandhi had evolved his unconventional political strategies. Many African leaders who participated in the New Delhi summit acknowledged their debt of gratitude to Gandhi and Nehru.

After Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s time, ties with Africa became a lower priority in foreign policy. But China, as the world’s fastest-growing economy, made much headway in the continent. In 2009 it displaced the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner. India’s current trade turnover of $70 billion is way below China’s $220 billion.

Since 2000 China has provided more than $30 billion in aid to African countries. Its state-owned companies have invested in the energy, mining and infrastructure sectors.

A 745-kilometre-long electric railway line connecting the capitals of Djibouti and Ethiopia, built by Chinese engineers, was opened to traffic earlier this month. It cost $4 billion, and half the money was put up by Chinese banks. “This line will change the social and economic landscape of the two countries,” Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn said.

People-to-people contacts have played a big part in Indo-African relations. During the colonial period, Britain had taken Indians to the continent to work. Today there are about 2.5 million people of Indian origin in 46 of the 54 countries of the continent.

Barring the expulsion of Indians by Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, there was no major hostile action against Indian immigrants. That phase is now forgotten and Uganda’s Indian community, which numbers about 30,000, has invested more than $1 billion in its economy.

A scholarship programme for African students, initiated by Nehru, helped the continent’s newly independent countries to find personnel to run the administration. Two years ago 25,000 young Africans were studying in Indian universities, and India decided to push the number up to 50,000. Stray racial attacks in some Indian cities damaged the goodwill generated by this decision. Narendra Modi disappointed the Africans by failing to condemn the attacks.

Some Africa watchers have noted that while China is involved in huge, high-profile projects, India is pursuing a soft-power approach. It is providing essential medicines to African countries by selling generic drugs, ignoring US assertion that such action violates its intellectual property laws.

The India-Rwanda Innovation Growth Programme launched during Ansari’s visit exemplifies the soft-power approach. It envisages the adoption of 20 Indian technologies and innovation in the next two years by joint ventures set up with Rwandan partners.

Ansari said it was a pilot project and would be extended later to seven countries of East Africa and still later to seven other economic zones across the continent.

Talking to Indian correspondents who accompanied him on the African tour, Ansari discounted suggestions by the western media that India and China are involved in a scramble in the continent.

The continent is so big and the current Indian and Chinese engagement so diverse that there is no need for them to step on each other’s toes. India’s main concern is to ensure that China’s pet projects like the “One Belt One Road” initiative do not hurt its interests.
 
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 The author is a political analyst of reckoning
 

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