Africa Summit: Waka! Waka!
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi
Africa comes to India over October 26-29 for the India-Africa Forum Summit. The participation in the meet is expected to be higher than at the 1983 Non-Aligned Summit that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi organised at Vigyan Bhavan, New Delhi. A summit remembered for the bear hug Cuban leader Fidel Castro gave Mrs Gandhi. At that time, many of the heads of non-aligned States that had come to Delhi were largely unknown to the Indian people.
Out of the 54 heads of States this time, the Indian government has got the support of heavyweights like South African President Jacob Zuma of South Africa, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt. Although the economy and business will be the primary agenda of the summit, there are plenty of other issues that will be part of this conversation. India has trade worth $70 billion with the countries of the continent, and it is growing quite rapidly.
In 2008, India woke up to the idea of engaging with the African countries seriously after it realised the inroads that the Chinese businesses had made there. The Africa summit was then hastily organised, and attempts were made to leverage old ties during the colonial period when the continent was controlled from Delhi and Mumbai. Indians were then handling many important jobs in the bureaucracy and educational institutions in many of these countries. This writer, during a trip to Ethiopia, found many citizens of an earlier generation reminiscing about their Indian teachers. In other countries, too, the Indian presence was both loved and resented.
It was in South Africa that Mahatma Gandhi learned important lessons in building a mass movement. There have been, in recent times, some controversies about how he perceived the local black population. A recent book by Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahid, The South African Gandhi – Stretcher Bearer of Empire, goes deep into Gandhi’s complicated persona and how he interfaced with the British imperialists. The book ruffles the stereotype about the Father of the Nation, but it also highlights the deep ties India had with Africa. After all, this was the continent where Indians from different parts of the country would travel as indentured labour. Most of these hapless Indians may have never returned to their motherland, but they used their collective memories to carve their Little Indias wherever they lived. It is due to this reason that Indians have a significant presence in South Africa, Mauritius, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Tanzania, Somalia and so many other countries of the continent.
Though the world may have moved on from reminiscing about emotional links, there is plenty that India could do by using these old ties. The Indian government has realised that it cannot compete with the Chinese and their enormous wealth, but there is plenty that Indians can still do in terms of soft power and blue economy. The mercantilist history of this region is full of stories of traders travelling from Gujarat and Kerala to Somalia, Tanzania and other countries located along the shoreline. In many ways, the interaction with these nations defined India’s trading communities in India and Africa.
No one understands this better than Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who belongs to Gujarat and is pushing hard for investments for Make In India. He is also cognisant of the need to rebuild ties with Africa to take on the growing Chinese influence in the neighbourhood.
So, in many ways, this is a critical summit that would not just help in improving business and trade ties, but give an opportunity to rediscover a continent that has been ignored due to our obsession with the white Western world.