This week’s India-Africa Forum Summit is possibly the most ambitious diplomatic exercise India ever attempted. Towards sealing partnerships, strengthening solidarity and expanding cooperation and trade, the summit’s sweep that involves at least 1,000 delegates from 54 countries on the African continent is enormous. The intent is clear. India is aiming for a larger role in global affairs, with the new government purposefully reaching out to the world in the past year and more, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi playing an active international role from his swearing-in, where he invited India’s nearest neighbours from Saarc.
To gather everyone who counts in Africa in New Delhi would in itself be a grand diplomatic success, though what role India can play in future is subject to how well the initiative is followed up with action on the ground. In the earlier two summits, India managed to reach out to only about 14 African nations. To bring everyone, including Sudan’s controversial President Omar al-Bashir, wanted by the ICC on war crimes charges in Darfur, shows India matters. Host South Africa refusing to arrest the Sudanese leader while he attended a summit earlier this year should be sufficient indication of where Africa stands on this.
There is no fear that India would tread on too many toes in giving him similar diplomatic protection. It cannot be India’s intention to be interventionist in African affairs. As today’s fastest urbanising continent, Africa offers opportunities in the modern economy and is no more a land to be exploited solely for its natural resources like strategic minerals and oil. Its needs have changed as it attempts to modernise, and offers nearly limitless trade opportunities, with India’s current $75 billion trade being minuscule compared to what is possible. Similarly, India’s $8 billion aid for partnership projects could be augmented.
This is partly due to loss of focus on Africa after having forged promising ties soon after Independence, apart from historic trade ties with northern and sub-Saharan Africa. A changing Africa is important and India has clearly seen this in organising a summit this large, with over 40 nations represented at the level of President or Prime Minister. With India’s interest in Africa not simply mercantile but also with an eye on helping with the knowledge economy, there is a chance that its position will be better understood at a summit than in regular bilateral sessions....