By Dr. Simona Vittorini*
New Delhi is in the midst of intensive diplomatic activity in preparation for the Third India Africa Forum Summit (IAFS) that will take place October 26-29.
It was under the aegis of the Congress-led UPA government that the first and second IAFS were held in 2008 and 2011. Arriving slightly late on the scene after Japan, the EU, and China had already held numerous African summits, India’s the first and second IAFS were rather modest affairs, with limited outreach. They were held adopting the so-callled Banjul Formula recommended by the African Union, according to which only 14-15 African states’ representatives were invited.
Yet, the IAFS signalled a radical transformation of India-Africa relations by elevating them to summit level and by establishing an institutional platform for engagement and cooperation at bilateral, regional and continental level.
Nevertheless, there have been concerns in the past few years that Africa has slipped quietly off the Indian radar. Last year, the Third IAFS was postponed to an unspecified date in 2015 due to the Ebola crisis. Equally the 11th edition of the CII India-Africa Conclave was also postponed. This is significant since it is there that deals worth of millions are signed between Indian government and businesses and their African counterparts. To The Economist this was a clumsy decision on the part of New Delhi for, whilst in this period, India-Africa bilateral trade did not grow as predicted, China-Africa bilateral trade soared to US $210bn making China Africa’s largest trading partner.
Narendra Modi’s packed foreign travelling agenda seemed to confirm these concerns. Since becoming Prime Minister in 2014, Modi has travelled extensively, but beside his Indian Ocean-nation visits (Mauritius and Seychelles) in the spring of this year, he has yet to visit an African country. In fact, Modi has been more preoccupied with engaging with the world’s powerful nations than with other fellow-developing countries.
It is in this context, therefore, that this Third IAFS holds much promise.
Some view this larger India-Africa summit just as a showpiece of diplomatic activity. In line with Modi’s penchant for the spectacular, this is going to be remembered as the largest diplomatic gathering in India since the Non-Alignment Summit in 1983. Diplomatic spectacles aside, it will be wrong to dismiss it as another example of Modi’s modus operandum. There’s ground to believe that the Third IAFS may be the occasion to chart a new road for India-Africa relations.
Not only this is the first India-Africa summit to be held under Modi, but this is also the most important public occasion in which India’s Prime Minister will engage with a large number Southern countries. Even though we cannot talk yet of a Modi doctrine, Narendra Modi has certainly brought a number of changes to India’s foreign policy. His extensive trips abroad have signalled a dynamism and willingness to assume world leadership – something that has been welcomed by those who complained about India’s lack of direction in its foreign engagements.
There is also a perceptible shift in the ways in which India’s economic agenda is being pursued through foreign engagements with the promotion of the ‘Make in India’ campaign. In it is in this light that this much-awaited Third IAFS has the potential to reinvigorate the relations between Africa and the subcontinent. Indeed, many observers and officials have lamented of the lack of direction and co-ordination in India-Africa engagements. This lack of foresight has damaged some Indian interests in the African continent. Modi’s proactive foreign policy and his self-projection as a decisive leader promises to deliver in these regards.
Second, by extending invitations to all African leaders rather than revert to the Banjul Formula signals a recognition of Africa’s diversity and Delhi’s desire to strengthen relations with all African countries individually as well as with the continent and its various regional institutions. Wanting to engage with all African countries also indicates that India has finally realised that it has a lot of catching up to do and it is willing to throw itself into the fray with more determination.
Lastly, this much larger and spectacular IAFS is a not-so-subtle message to China, whose FOCAC (Forum on China-Africa Cooperation) will take place in South Africa in December. By holding the IAFS just three weeks ahead of the China-Africa summit, New Delhi is hoping to out-smart and out-do China. FOCAC has been recently upgraded to a summit.
But there is another reason why the Third IAFS is expected to transform India-Africa relations. The ideological and strategic drivers at the heart of New Delhi’s relationship with the African continent have very much been couched in a Nehruvian discourse of southern solidarity for the creation of a more equitable and just world. Whilst this rhetoric has often been seen largely as a mask to conceal India’s real economic and strategic intentions in Africa, commitments to Third Worldism and alternative ideas of sovereignty and economic development are still relevant in India’s engagements with the developing world, more than realist accounts would want us to believe. Yet, this may be bound to change.
That Modi is not a Nehru fan is no secret. Since being elected, Modi has ostensibly tried to distance himself from anything Nehruvian. As the historian Sunil Khilnani suggests, if the arrival of Modi has brought with it a rewriting of the history of India, Nehru will not be a leading chapter any more. Indeed, Modi has refrained from using terms dear to Nehruvism in describing India’s relations with the South. Whilst abroad, he has instead often talked of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (a old Sanskrit saying that means that the world is one family) – a concept that many other Indian leaders had used before him – and, in describing India-Africa linkages, so far Modi has preferred to highlight Gandhi’s role in cementing India-Africa relations rather than revert back to the Nehruvian discourse of Southern solidarity.
It is possible that Modi’s calculated neglect of South-South rhetoric (so prominent in previous official India-Africa declarations) is nothing more that a simple distaste for the Nehruvian. However these rhetorical changes may be more substantial, indicating the diminishing importance of the developing world to India’s economic and strategic future. Yet, Africa is a key source of energy and natural resources for India. It is also an important strategic and trading partner that can play a decisive role in Modi’s development goals, his ‘Make in India’ campaign, not to speak of New Delhi’s ambitions to reform global governance institutions.
New Delhi can ill afford to neglect Africa. Modi has the political capital to undertake bold foreign policy initiatives. The upcoming IAFS may be the occasion for Modi to reveal his vision for India-Africa relations and to give new thrust to this age-old partnership.
*Dr. Simona Vittorini is a Senior Teaching Fellow in the Department of Politics and International Studies, SOAS, University of London. She can be contacted at [email protected]