Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s four-nation African diplomatic safari from July 7 covered three different kinds of African neighbours across the Indian Ocean. Kenya and Tanzania are former British colonies, with a large Indian diaspora at the time of their freedom; Mozambique is a former Portuguese colony, like Goa; and South Africa the second biggest African economy and last bastion of apartheid freed only in the post-Cold War. It was also the laboratory of Mahatma Gandhi’s experiments with civil disobedience. But history can bind as indeed crucible of residual hurts, both of which linger in the region.
South Africa presents this conundrum graphically. Nelson Mandela, though inspired by both Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, was also conscious of his African National Congress followers perceiving Indians and coloureds as not only victims of apartheid but, both being economically better off and selectively co-opted by the regime, also exploiters. Thus not often understood in India is the asymmetry between the Indian approach to South Africa, viewed through the prism of Mahatma Gandhi and an emotional miasma, and South Africa’s viewing of India as merely one amongst many nations that stood by them during their struggle.
On being released from jail Mandela first went to Sweden, then Britain and the United States — that had stood by the apartheid regime during the Cold War, and only then arrived in India as part of his Asian tour. The political class in India still labours under that old illusion. In fact, in 1998, when South Africa was hosting the Non-Aligned Movement summit at Durban, then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was surprised by South Africa’s attempt to meddle in the Kashmir issue. Brajesh Mishra, then principal secretary, instructed me as MEA spokesman to counter this in a midnight briefing of the quickly-assembled Indian media.
The same duality resurfaces time and again when India and the nuclear regime is discussed, particularly now when Indian membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group was taken up in Seoul.
Mr Modi said the South Africans have had a change of heart but President Jacob Zuma kept silent. They nurse a grouse that their secret strategic weapons programme was dismantled by the racist regime before surrendering power to Mandela. Additionally, it was on Chinese insistence that South Africa was admitted to Brics, although its $312.8 billion economy hardly justified the inclusion other than as an emerging African economy.
Prime Minister Modi’s visit was, however, well timed as Africa is witnessing an economic slowdown after a decade of spectacular growth fuelled by commodity exports, driven by Chinese demand. It is estimated that in sub-Saharan Africa commodities account for 50 per cent of the GDP of nations, manufacturing having fallen by a third from 11 per cent in 1990. The two biggest economies, South Africa and Nigeria, are both tottering. During then commerce minister Anand Sharma’s South Africa visit in 2011, it was announced that bilateral trade would be lifted from $7.5 billion annually to $15 billion by 2014. The 2014-15 figure is approximately $11 billion. While huge possibilities exist for India using South Africa as a source for commodities and technology and a base for Indian companies planning to penetrate African markets, the ruling African National Congress appears unable to overcome the high unemployment-low growth cycle.
Ruchir Sharma, in his book The Rise and Fall of Nations, avers that the number of African governments running a deficit of more than three per cent of GDP, seen as a potentially dangerous level, has grown from 11 in 2008 to 20 in 2013. This is not surprising as the commodity boom tapered off in 2011. Further, nations growing faster than six per cent fell from 22 in 2010 to nine in 2015. Those with low inflation were just six, three of which are the founding members of the East African Community (EAC) — Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. Mr Modi visited Kenya and Tanzania, that are the two biggest economies in the group.
Bilateral trade with these two and Mozambique varies between $1 billion and $3-4 billion annually. But they have minerals, food, fossil fuel and oil and gas to export. With the Chinese economy slowing down and the EAC becoming a seamless market, India is well positioned to develop partnerships based on mutual need and not relationships that appear exploitative as those of China are beginning to be perceived.
The EAC today has Kenya, led by forward-looking President Uhuru Kenyatta, elected through a peaceful election, driving the EAC, which is a revival of a grouping that collapsed in 1977. It covers a population of 149 million and a combined GDP of $150 billion-odd. Like the United States with its Trans- Pacific Partnership, the time is ripe to envision a Trans-Indian Ocean Partnership, built with the EAC as the core to which others can be added.
China thrives when it deals with autocratic African regimes where transparency is at a discount. The Indian model of partnership is ideal for open societies. But Mr Modi should realise the utility of the diaspora in bilateral relations varies from nation to nation. In Africa, it may be a mixed blessing. President Zuma’s Indian friends have reportedly fled South Africa after allegations of malfeasance. Dubai used to similarly have umpteen Indian businessmen leveraging links to unsavoury rulers of autocratic African regimes given to predatory practices. Diplomacy has to go hand-in-hand with a reading of history and not ignoring errant diplomatic conduct. Beating of African drums makes a great picture for the PM; but he must vary his tune to suit the subject....