Modi may be dressing up India’s Africa policy differently, but little has changed

India’s Narendra Modi addressing African leaders in New Delhi. Harish Tyagi/EPA

When some 40 African heads of state travelled to New Delhi in late October for a lavish India-Africa forum, it was a colourful affair with many donning a version of the signature “Modi jacket” worn by India’s prime minister.

This third India-Africa Forum Summit (IAFS) put the first spotlight on the Africa policies of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led coalition since it came to power in 2014.

Observers wondered whether Modi would bolster the old anti-colonial foundations of India-Africa friendship that were at the forefront of the policy of the BJP’s predecessors, the Congress Party. Or whether there would be a shift of focus by India’s hawkish premier as part of the country’s bold push for a place at the international top table. Crucially, how would Modi manage the complexity of India’s relationships with each of the 54 African countries represented at IAFS 2015?

Muscular nationalism and Indian opportunity

The IAFS is the zenith of India’s renewed interest in Africa as a zone of opportunity. Certainly, the nature of any India-Africa partnership has diversified significantly since the anti-imperial emphasis of the 1955 Bandung conference between Asian and African governments.

Now the drive for energy security, export markets and geopolitical ascent strongly preoccupy India. Since 2002, more commercial imperatives have underpinned diplomatic activity in Africa. Bilateral trade has expanded more than tenfold to over $70 billion in less than a decade.

The Indian state stewards access for its private sector to African partners and Indian diplomats attempt to incorporate Africa’s enormous South Asian-origin communities into energetic diaspora policies, for example by seizing the chance of soft diplomacy when the Indian Premier League cricket tournament was relocated to South Africa in 2009.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the content of IAFS 2015 resembled its 2008 and 2011 predecessors, but on a much larger scale. One (rather tired) image in particular continued to cast a shadow over the recent summit – the spectre of China in Africa. China’s economic slowdown was seen to present new opportunities for India to exercise its comparative advantages – a shared history, the diaspora, its contribution to the UN, and its emphasis on multilateralism – when it comes to winning African friendship.

The China vs India battles generate relatively little debate within Africa: China is by far the more powerful, controversial and successful partner. But the struggle continues to obsess Indian commentators, signifiying anxiety about India’s strategic and economic position.

The particular brand of muscular nationalism espoused by the BJP has seen India’s global leadership bumped up the agenda. Indeed, African support for India’s elusive permanent seat on the UN Security Council (UNSC) was a conspicuous feature of IAFS 2015. But such emphasis is really about scale not policy change. Indian Ocean security and the UNSC have been recurrent themes of India’s post-colonial policies in Africa.

Economic growth is still a central tenet of India’s policy. African markets and Indians overseas have been more deeply folded into such ambition in the intervening years, perhaps aided now by Hindu nationalism in Gujarati and wider Indian diasporas, which Modi had a part in fostering as former chief minister of Gujarat.

Such economic zeal will further project “India Inc.” in Africa, following in the footsteps of the Congress prime minister Manmohan Singh, the putative architect of India’s liberalisation in the 1990s and host of the first IAFS in 2008. But Modi realises that achievement has not always matched intent when it comes to grand Indian projects in Africa.

Different histories, similar outcomes

What has changed to some degree is the history on which such policies are based. This reflects debates about nationalism in India more than the precise contours of partnership with different African countries.

Quite rightly, anti-colonial heroism has been the beating heart of Indo-African rapprochement. But there is less urgency for Modi to employ the received narrative of the anti-imperial struggle, which is tethered so strongly to the rival Congress party. It was Congress which gave a base to the exiled African National Congress in 1967, a linkage consistently evoked in India’s post-apartheid diplomacy.

Several Congress officials reportedly boycotted IAFS 2015 because India’s first prime minister, Jawarharlal Nehru, bastion of Indo-African anti-colonialism, was omitted from Indian speeches. Even Gandhi, who famously began his journey to becoming the “Mahatma” in South Africa and emotively binds the two nations, was surprisingly rarely invoked in 2015.

The material ambitions of India in Africa remain broadly the same, but the ideological foundations appear to be moving. The grandees of one version of Indian nationalism (Congress) sit uncomfortably with more exclusive notions of another (BJP). Yet this was not reflected among African leaders, who continued to speak warmly of Nehru.

Africa is still not a priority for Indian diplomacy. Rajat Gupta/EPA

Consolidation, not change

Despite apparent departures in foreign policy under Modi, the mood is one of consolidation rather than change in Africa.

The continued emphasis on African peoples as equal partners in the march to a more just and multipolar world is significant. Yet, notwithstanding headline Africa summits or India-Brazil-South Africa meetings, Africa is still not a high priority of Indian foreign policy.

Meetings such as the IAFS give little room for discussion about the contentious realities of African partnership, for instance stinging criticisms at home and abroad of land acquisitions by Indian conglomerates in Ethiopia.

One might question whether change is needed with relations so warm that African premiers happily don versions of Modi’s jacket. But Africa has often functioned as a relatively static arena of thought in India (as in Britain). And Africans themselves have taken little notice of India’s posturing: IAFS was not widely reported within Africa.

Despite this, productive partnership – both for India (vs China) and African citizens – will emerge. But this should be based on a more dexterous and textured reference to African nations and societies.

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