200717WO Modi webIndian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Picture: REUTERS
200717WO Modi webIndian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Picture: REUTERS

A series of events held in January have marked a busy beginning of a new diplomatic year for India. The Vibrant Gujarat summit was held from January 18-20 in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, and the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (Indian Diaspora Day) was held from January 21- 23. These events will be followed by the annual Republic Day parade on January 26. The three events have one thing in common: there is a new and special focus on Africa in all of these gatherings.

During the Vibrant Gujarat summit, Africa Day was celebrated on January 19. The chief guest at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas was Pravind Jugnauth, prime minister of Mauritius. The Pravasi Bharatiya Divas also has an African connection; India celebrates this day to mark the return of MK Gandhi  to India from SA. The third event, India’s Republic Day function on January 26, will have President  Cyril Ramaphosa as chief guest.

Apart from the current engagements, the interaction between India and Africa has increased in the past few years. Considering India-Africa relations from soft and hard power perspective, soft power has provided a solid foundation, which has resulted in a natural progression. But it is important for both India and Africa to continue expanding their cooperation in the hard power area. Only a balance between soft and hard power can realise the full potential of India-Africa relations.

Historical connections, the struggle against colonialism, and trade and business links are the principal areas of soft power connections between India and Africa. In particular, anti-colonialism has played an important role in bringing them closer. Common challenges in the post-colonial period have also played an important role in further development of India-Africa relations. Many African countries have been a part of the Nonaligned Movement, and the Indian diaspora in Africa is another major area of soft power connection. 

India’s increased interaction with its diaspora in recent years provides an additional avenue for forwarding its interests. As far as trade is concerned, India-Africa trade reached $62.66bn in 2017-18, an increase of 22% over the previous year. The Indian government’s duty-free tariff preference scheme has proved beneficial for a number of African countries. The scheme aims to make Indian markets more accessible to African exporters. Petroleum and agricultural products are the prominent African exports to India, and two-way trade is expected to grow to $150bn in the next five years.

The area of hard power offers both India and Africa a lot of scope for strengthening relations. Fields such as  maritime security, connectivity, the blue economy and combating terrorism, hold potential for forwarding mutual interests. As a region of increasing strategic and economic importance, Africa has become an area of interest to regional and extra regional powers —  especially India and China. China, through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has already established a presence and made extensive investments across Africa. But India is also emerging as a power on the continent and is looking to extend its reach in different regions. It has a two-pronged approach. Serving its own interests is the primary objective but, at the same time, competing with China has become a secondary and increasingly important objective.

The past few years have seen India engaging extensively across Africa through bilateral and multilateral meetings. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has travelled to the Seychelles, Mauritius, Mozambique, SA (twice), Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda in the past four years.

India hosted the third India-Africa Forum summit in 2015. As Brics members, India and SA engage at multilateral as well as bilateral level at grouping summits, and at G20 summits. Economic and strategic engagement with Africa is an opportunity as well as challenge for India.

China’s presence is a major challenge. But now there are increasing instances of voices being raised against the BRI, which is blamed for creating an unnecessary debt burden as well as not being eco-friendly. In the present situation, it would be a challenge for India to propose economic and strategic co-operation to Africa in a way that does not look threatening to the economies of the African countries.

India-Africa relations have come a long way in recent years, but the emerging global situation demands that both realign their relations so as to be a collective power. It is important to remember that Africa has as much to offer India as India has to Africa. India’s accelerated engagements with Africa could be considered promising steps to take India-Africa relations to a higher level of strategic co-operation.

Marjani is an independent researcher and columnist based in Vadodara, India.