A day after Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Rwanda which presently chairs the African Union, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in the east African country as part of his just concluded Africa tour. Modi could not have but been aware that these back to back visits would draw attention, comparison and comment in Africa and beyond on the two countries policies and actions on that continent. That Modi went ahead with the visit profiles India's determination to pursue its relations with Africa uninhibited and undeterred by Chinese inroads over the past few decades in the continent. Clearly, Modi also feels that because of his outreach to African countries India would not emerge unfavourably in a comparison with China. Is this confidence justified?
In the modern Indian imagination Africa is associated with Mahatma Gandhi's work in South Africa. Less so is the presence of descendants of Indian indentured labour and traders to Britain's African colonies in the 19th and early 20th centuries but these by now largely prosperous communities form an enduring link between Africa and India. India's contribution to the decolonization process in the 1950s and the 1960s and its uncompromising opposition to apartheid in South Africa is a positive part of its diplomatic history. However, Indian and African perceptions regarding these areas are not on all fours. Gandhiji's contribution to humanity and his influence on many leading African leaders in their fight against colonialism is well recognised. Also acknowledged is India's contribution to decolonisation. However, while Indian communities are part of the African landscape from time to time there has been tension between the majority communities and them.
In any event contemporary relations have to be built on the coincidence of current interests, not on shared memories of cooperation. Nostalgia is never a firm basis for inter-state interaction despite diplomats and statesmen regularly invoking cultural commonalities and historical ties. Is there sufficient content and matching priorities in ongoing ties to serve Indian and African interests? African countries require support for their material and human development and, in some cases, for their security. India has taken care to respond to African requests for assistance and not impose ideologies. Its assistance has included education and health and training in various areas of governance. It is here that India has excelled but now it is becoming increasingly difficult to find the right Indian experts to go on assignments to go abroad. Hence, India has to build on its programmes of distant e-teaching by setting up virtual universities in India for Africa.
As Indian private sector has matured it has spread its activities to Africa. Major Indian companies have a presence on the continent. They are involved in activities stretching from mining to telecommunications, infrastructure development to diamonds. In most cases they have earned the trust of the host countries. However, there have been some cases, as in South Africa, of Indian companies growing close associations with particular politicians and thereby generating considerable ill will.
China easily scores over India in building stadiums and airports and other infrastructure projects. These are impressive but do not have any local participation in their construction. Some Chinese workers who work on them stay back to open small businesses and this is deeply resented. However, many African countries that need Chinese assistance accept these collateral aspects. China's need for raw materials is insatiable and its assistance is meant to secure them. The problem is that Africa is reminded of its colonial experience with such a trade structures. This too is resented. China does not seek to develop local manufacturing through developing ancillary industries. This is partly eroding Chinese efforts to get goodwill.
While the scale of Chinese investments and trade with Africa is vastly higher than that of India the perception is that India can contribute to human resources development where China cannot. India's democratic process also gives confidence to many African countries that aspire to have functioning democratic systems and seek Indian training programmes for their officials. The UPA government had done well to engage the African Union through the India-Africa summits. Modi imparted greater scope by inviting all African countries to the last summit held in India. In Uganda, which he visited after Rwanda, Modi did well to reiterate India's commitment to the continent, including earmarking US $ 10 billion for its assistance programme. He also said that India would open eighteen more diplomatic missions in Africa. This is a positive decision but has to be followed up with fostering greater expertise in the government on African issues. It is also essential that India's delivery systems for aid are streamlined so that the country's detractors claim that India is all talk and no action is effectively repudiated.
A sign of the success of India's Africa engagement lies in the interest of many advanced countries such as the US, Britain and Japan, to undertake joint projects with India. It should view these proposals with caution. Clearly, these countries wish to take advantage of India's goodwill in African countries. Some of these countries are former colonial powers and while they are engaged in providing assistance to their former colonies the odium of colonialism sticks today too.
There is great need for Indian academia and the media to expand their horizons on India's external engagements. For now, there is obsessive focus on India's relations with Pakistan and other neighbours and with some great powers. It is time that Africa, South America and other distant areas also attract attention.