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A new chapter in India-Africa relations?

With India on the rise globally, Africa could benefit from a more engaged and ambitious New Delhi.

The size and health of India’s US$3.5 trillion economy have made the country a force to be reckoned with in global affairs. It has surpassed the United Kingdom in size and looks set to outstrip Germany by 2028, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Along with its economic muscle, India is asserting itself diplomatically. Its firm position on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, pushback against COVID-19 discrimination and no-nonsense approach to climate and trade issues resonate strongly with many Global South nations. A rising India has implications for Africa, which could benefit from a more engaged and ambitious New Delhi.

First, India has historically enjoyed a close relationship with Africa, given the shared struggle against colonialism, the non-aligned movement and shared socio-economic and demographic challenges. However, since the last India-Africa Forum Summit in New Delhi in 2015, the world’s political architecture has changed fundamentally. While India’s upward economic trajectory has continued, many African countries face economic distress and are re-evaluating their alliances amid global power competition.

Geopolitically, India’s desire for a more equitable world order resonates with many African sovereigns who have become disillusioned with the liberal western order. As a leading member of the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) bloc, India has been forthright in its desire for greater representation in multilateral bodies. This extends to the United Nations (UN) Security Council, where India has been an influential voice and has pushed for a permanent seat while expressing support for Africa’s Ezulwini Consensus.

There are also similarities on climate issues – where India and African nations refuse to be the West’s sacrificial lambs. This positioning has championed the interests of developing countries in a way that is largely congruent with African interests.

African countries could learn from India’s more aggressive diplomatic approach

But the real masterstroke has been India’s dexterous position on Russia. It drew the ire of its Quad allies – the United States (US), Japan and Australia – for breaking ranks on the Ukraine war. India continues to buy arms and oil from Russia, keeping its historical ally on side. New Delhi chose to prioritise its sovereign military and economic interests over appeasing its Quad allies who depend on India as a counterbalance against China.

Exercising such leverage raises a broader point that African diplomats would do well to recognise – the need to understand their strategic value and exploit the benefits accordingly.

Second, there are mutually beneficial commercial interests, evidenced by the uptick in activity by India’s corporate heavyweights and rising trade and investment volumes in recent years. The strength of India’s corporate sector, cultural and political linkages, an active diaspora, and the experience of Indian businesses in navigating complex and diverse landscapes are major strengths.

For Indian businesses, Africa represents a massive untapped market, especially for manufacturing goods like textiles, pharmaceuticals, automobiles and light machinery. Africa also carries opportunities in the resource and energy sectors, which have traditionally been areas of vulnerability for India. The African Continental Free Trade Area agreement has also piqued the interest of Indian businesses.

India’s investment model prioritises local productivity, is transparent and fosters skills that Africa needs

On the military front, India has long been a leading troop contributor to UN peacekeeping missions in Africa. Its military activity has concentrated around the Indian Ocean, where India has historically been a dominant player in island nations such as Seychelles and Mauritius. With the Indian Ocean becoming a key battleground due to its strategic access and influence for energy resources and national security, India is redoubling its comparative advantages to maintain its naval and diplomatic ascendancy.

Economically, Indian activity is largely led by the private sector, as opposed to China’s state-led approach. Even though significantly smaller in quantum, the Indian method is deemed by analysts to be more beneficial in the long run. It prioritises local productivity, is more transparent and fosters skills that Africa needs, as opposed to China’s ‘resource for cash’ approach. India’s strategy is further supported by the activities of the Indian Exim Bank, Confederation of Indian Industry events and India-Africa conclaves.

There are also important soft power tools that New Delhi can unlock in Africa. Healthcare diplomacy was evident during the pandemic, as India donated vaccines to several countries, reinforcing its comparative advantage as the ‘pharmacy of the world’. At a time when Western powers were hoarding vaccines, this gained India goodwill across Africa.

Similarly, with future global competition likely to be concentrated around digital connectivity, India’s technological prowess will allow it to compete for influence in Africa. Soft power encompasses other arenas (Bollywood aside) too. The success of Indian Premier League cricket now sees Indian franchises extending to South Africa, where the inaugural CSA T20 league will be played in January 2023. All six teams have Indian owners, and their extensive networks of scouts, analysts and sponsors will be a boon to South African cricket.

Indian businesses must overcome the ‘fear factor’ that sees high risk premiums assigned to Africa

Second is the elephant in the room – racism. Like China, whose reputation in Africa was sullied by allegations of racism in 2020, there have been reports of attacks on Nigerian students in New Delhi. As Mishra notes, Delhi’s track record for furthering people-to-people contact remains woefully inadequate. Moreover, the recent ‘Made in India’ cough syrup scandal in The Gambia has inflicted reputational damage the country can ill afford.

Third, while outwardly projecting a clear vision, internally there is some conjecture about what modern India stands for. In the past, India’s appeal has centred on its plurality and secular, socialist and democratic ideals. However, under the current administration, there is concern about a more religious, nationalistic and autocratic direction, bringing the ‘Delhi Consensus’ under scrutiny.

Finally, as India grows its global aspirations, does New Delhi have the willingness and ability to engage Africa as a priority? Jakkie Cilliers, Head of African Futures and Innovation at the Institute for Security Studies, believes that ‘India consistently underperforms diplomatically and its interests in Africa are perfunctory.’

India has a clear opportunity to carve a new niche as Africa’s strategic partner. But Sanusha Naidu of the Institute for Global Dialogue told ISS Today that to maintain a positive trajectory, New Delhi must clarify what it stands for.

‘First, it needs to be clear whether its Africa policy will be ventilated primarily through the government or private sector (or hybrid). Next, it needs to articulate what it offers Africa aside from simply not being China. And finally, India needs to be clear about the optics of its soft power strategy.’

Ronak Gopaldas, ISS Consultant, Director, Signal Risk and CAMM Fellow, Gordon Institute of Business Science

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