India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi concluded his five-day, four-nation tour of Africa on July 11. He spent two days in South Africa and made brief visits to Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya.
As he left Nairobi at the end of the tour, Modi had covered 42 countries in his 51 trips abroad. Antarctica is now the only continent he has not visited in his two years in office.
Constantly referencing Mahatma Gandhi and donning “Madiba shirts”, Modi left no stone unturned to charm South Africa. But no matter how much he emphasised the special and unique nature of “Africa-India” relations, his “special relationship” stump speech has been made repeatedly around the world.
India has historically felt the need for anti-colonial and south-south solidarity with African states. But its strongest ties in the past 15 years have been with oil-producing states and those with large Indian diaspora. Although much is made of India’s trade ties with Africa, trade with the continent as a whole has been stagnant at about US$72 billion a year for the past five years.
In the past two years, Modi’s foreign visits have become celebrated events – from Madison Square Garden in New York to Wembley Stadium in London to the Coca-Cola Dome in Johannesburg. The substance of his visits is often overshadowed by their symbolism, which is connected to his broader political project. Modi’s Africa trip has to be viewed in the context of this project. Three things stand out.
Modi’s political project
First, his diplomacy is a branding exercise of “India is Modi and Modi is India”. This is a duplication of his successful domestic strategy. Election after election in the state of Gujarat and later nationally, Modi pursued an individual-centred, presidential-style campaign. Yet India is supposed to be a party-centred, prime ministerial democracy. In making foreign policy an extension of his domestic campaign, he has turned Indian diplomacy into an effective public relations machine.
Second, foreign visits, he recently acknowledged, are as much about providing him with international legitimacy as they are about promoting India’s interests. To understand this we must reach back to the 2002 communal killings in Gujarat under his chief ministership. These drew condemnation – and visa refusals – internationally.
In cultivating personal relations with world leaders – US President Barack Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping, even South African President Jacob Zuma – Modi is recasting his image as an international statesman. In this exercise, he adroitly mixes Gandhi and glamour. Whether he espouses another G – gravitas – is debatable.
Third, Modi’s version of internationalism is strongly rooted in an exclusive strain of nationalism. This connects strongly with the Indian diaspora. The exilic consciousness of the diaspora clings to romantic notions of a “motherland”. When these notions of motherland mix with neoliberalism, it creates a curious mix of middle-class diasporic nationalism.
Modi’s operatic-style performances and carefully choreographed public speeches abroad in massive venues have projected him as a political rock star. This, a form of concert diplomacy, has fired up the Indian diaspora, but it hasn’t substantially changed the content of Indian foreign policy or its engagements with African states.
Modi’s South Africa visit took place against the backdrop of India’s recent snub at the Nuclear Suppliers Group. His main success was announcing South African support for Indian membership of the group. Given South Africa’s strong credentials on nuclear issues and historical opposition to nuclear weapons, the yes to India came, surprisingly, without much domestic debate.
Worrying signs for Africa
Missing from Modi’s foreign trips is a focus on issues most pressing for Africa’s people. These are seemingly neglected.
One of these, which has been a cornerstone of India’s relationship with sub-Saharan Africa, has been a willingness to provide generic drugs. India does so in violation of US intellectual property laws.
The importance of India’s defiance of these laws has been acknowledged by successive South African governments. In late 2015 Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi warned of a “genocide” of six million AIDS sufferers in sub-Saharan Africa if India acceded to the US patent regime. This would deny the country access to affordable antiretroviral drugs.
Recently, however, Modi has agreed to work with the US to review intellectual property issues. As a result there are growing concerns that his US engagements might lead to India abandoning its resistance to the patenting regime.
On his visit to Johannesburg and Pretoria, Modi was tailed by a Médecins Sans Frontières billboard trailer calling on him “not to shut down the pharmacy of the developing world”. But this element of health care appears not to have been discussed.
Another concern not addressed is safety of African students in India, who constantly face racist violence. While attacks on Africans in India are not new, what is remarkable is that Modi’s government has refused to acknowledge these as instances of racism.
Hindu nationalism champions the idea that India is a tolerant and historically inclusive society. That there is ingrained racism is not acknowledged. Attacks on Africans have been dismissed as a “law and order” issue.
There were hopes that when Modi was visiting the continent he would promise to protect African citizens on his own soil.
But this was not to be.
Instead, and quite ironically, on the day that Modi travelled to Pietermaritzburg, the place where Gandhi started his life-long commitment to non-violent protest, Modi’s government initiated a violent clamp-down of protesters in Kashmir, killing 42 and injuring more than 1,500 so far. This unfortunate coincidence is perhaps the best representation of Modi’s political project and shows the emptiness of his Gandhi-Mandela rhetoric.