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India Spreads Its Wings in Africa: World View

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By Chandrahas Choudhury

In the India of the eighties and nineties in which I grew up, the word "abroad" carried a fantastic charge, uttered with pride by those in the middle class who had been outside the country (even if that meant a week's vacation in Thailand, or employment in a Gulf state) and with envy by those for whom leaving the country on any pretext was yet a dream.

In the two decades after the liberalization of the Indian economy in 1991, that has changed. Plane-loads of Indian tourists descend on European and Asian capitals; almost every middle-class Indian family has either a child or a relative in America; and Australia is a new top destination for higher education and tourism.

But if there is one part of the world that still possesses only a modest hold on the Indian public imagination, it is Africa. Although the continent is home to a substantial Indian diaspora, that population is concentrated in the east and the south, particularly in South Africa (where, at the turn of the 19th century, Mahatma Gandhi refined his techniques for non-violent civil resistance while agitating for the rights of indentured laborers) and in Kenya.

Even this is changing, though, as globalization takes hold in India and ambitious Indian firms -- most notably in oil, telecommunications and autos -- begin to invest on the continent. Last week, Africa received its most expansive coverage in the Indian press when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrived in Addis Ababa for the second India-Africa summit meeting. It was Singh's fourth visit to Africa in his eight years as prime minister, and his most successful. Over six days in Ethiopia and Tanzania, he made a number of landmark announcements, which suggests that, after decades of neglect, the relationship between the world's largest democracy and an emerging, resource-rich continent is going to be transformed.

The most eye-catching number of the summit was the $5 billion in credit lines offered by Singh over the next three years for development projects. He also offered $700 million for new institutions and training programs along with $300 million for an Ethiopia-Djibouti railway line. The gains that India would expect in return aren't just economic. There also are political stakes, such as the support of some or most of Africa’s 53 nations in New Delhi's campaign for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. The resolutions of the summit were summarized in "The Addis Ababa Declaration," which expressed the aspirations of both parties toward a place on an expanded Security Council.

Addressing the Ethiopian Parliament, Singh described a relationship stretching to the depths of time:

"Many millennia ago, Africa and India were joined as one landmass. Today we are separated by the waters of the Indian Ocean but our connections are deep… I am conscious that when one visits Ethiopia one visits the cradle of humankind... it is a land of great natural beauty which was home to the most ancient kingdom in Africa...The sight of women with heads covered and men wearing turbans is strikingly common in [both] Ethiopian and Indian villages. Hospitality in humble village homes begins with simple offerings and guests are treated as incarnations of gods."

At the summit, Singh told a gathering of African leaders from 15 countries:

"There is a new economic growth story emerging from Africa. Africa possesses all the prerequisites to become a major growth pole of the world. The India-Africa partnership is unique and owes its origins to history and our common struggle against colonialism, apartheid, poverty, disease, illiteracy and hunger."

Commentators were quick to compare India's ambitions in Africa with those of a rival economic power, China. A report in The Atlantic last year suggested that China is now probably the single largest investor in the continent, building roads, railways, and stadiums in exchange for access to oil, minerals, and markets for Chinese goods. The business newspaper Mint observed:

India enjoys historical ties with some African countries, but became a mere observer when China came calling for resources and energy, with financial riches New Delhi could not match. China boasts foreign exchange reserves of more than $3 trillion, 10 times India’s $307 billion, and has aggressively used state-owned development banks to invest heavily in oil, gas and other resources across the continent. But after being caught cold by China, and losing a series of bids for oil rights and infrastructure projects to its Asian rival, India is banking on a new approach to Africa that blends trade and investment with development economics.

India also is keen to leverage its global expertise in the information technology, agriculture and human-resource sectors to help African countries, many of which face the same developmental hurdles as India. While China has snapped up resources through government-to-government agreements, India wants the private sector to spearhead the push to secure investments across the continent.

Other voices suggested that India's economic relationship to Africa (about $46 billion annually in bilateral trade, less than half of China's) was more diverse and less exploitative than that of China, and was likely to be better received in the long run. An editorial in Mint said:

The pursuit of national interest does make countries turn a blind eye to domestic policies of some regimes. But China has shown a greater willingness to do so in Africa than India has, which is just as well since the gentler Indian approach may pay off in the long run as the democracy wave splashes over African despots.

Contracts between governments -- though the centerpiece of any engagement policy --often leave the ordinary citizen unmoved. It can sometimes be all about arms sales, energy deals and building large rail and port projects. This is where the private sector can play a role, providing job opportunities to ordinary Africans and helping them acquire skills. India may have lagged behind China in the race to Africa right now, but the government can use the dynamic private sector to close the gap. The investments by business groups such as the Tatas and the Mittals are a good start.

And an editorial in The Hindu stressed the need for India to take its own course in Africa:

The India-Africa relationship is not new; it draws on a long, shared history of struggle against European colonialism, and a determination to ensure equality in the post-colonial world order. Africa has played host to a large Indian diaspora, and independent India was among the first to take a firm stand against apartheid in South Africa. Reducing India's ties with Africa to a "rivalry" with China is to take a narrow view of history. Given the realities, it is also meaningless -- China's $126 billion trade with Africa is way ahead of India's $46 billion. It is best for New Delhi to use the present momentum to build its relationship with Africa in ways that will be of optimal benefit to both sides.

Over the last decade, Indian businesses have laid down a substantial footprint in Africa (a map of their presence can be found here). The biggest of these entities is the telecom company Bharti Airtel Ltd., which last year bought the African holdings of Kuwait's Mobile Telecommunications Co. for $10.7 billion. Bharti Airtel's chief executive, Sunil Mittal, said at the summit that his company would invest a further $1 billion this year to expand its network over 16 African countries. Perhaps the day is not far off when Indian families think of Dar es Salaam, Accra or Addis Ababa for their annual vacations instead of East Asia or Europe, and Indian films are shot on the savannahs of Kenya or in the dance halls of Dakar, instead of in London and New York.

So, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to have a look at air-ticket prices to Africa.

-0- Jun/01/2011 23:00 GMT

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