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Can India reinvent its Africa engagement? Time to define the relationship

Sanusha NaiduIn 2014 the newly elected Indian government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the 3rd India-Africa Forum Summit was postponed due to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. According to the spokesman for the Indian ministry of external affairs, the postponement was done in consultation with African countries. It was also stated that as a result of the safety precautions that had to be undertaken in line with the public health guidelines, it would have been logistically difficult to oversee and coordinate the estimated 1,000 delegates who were supposed to attend the Summit. A new date is yet to be announced

Postponement of the India-Africa Forum Summit because of the Ebola crisis is understandable as a health risk, but the decision also brought into focus a more critical issue of where India’s Africa Policy has been heading over the past three years since the 2011 Summit; and what will be nature of the engagement now under the Modi’s government refocused foreign policy impetus based on economic considerations.

Since being elected, the government of Prime Minister Modi has demonstrated an explicit resolve in repositioning and strengthening India’s relations in its regional neighborhood and the broader Asia region and the Indian Ocean Rim. This is further underpinned by the proposed ‘Make in India’ trade policy, which seems to be aimed at forging better economic access to and ties with the US.

At a recent workshop hosted by one of India’s premium think institutions on the India-Africa engagement, it was interesting to observe that the status quo of the relationship seems to be ebbing and flowing. Of particular interest was the underlying reference to Africa’s China engagement. It did seem that while Indian policy-makers and their African counterparts recognised that Delhi and African countries can enhance their own strategic partnership through the synergies already developed, the elephant in the room (excuse the pun) was the continent’s deepening relations with Beijing. But, of course, the China factor in India’s African engagement needs to be viewed in context of a corresponding question that was raised during the discussions, which asserted that a certain tiredness, stagnation or lack of excitement has crept into the India-Africa interaction. This is perhaps the point of departure from where policy mandarins on both sides should start focusing their attention in respect of the direction that the Africa-India, India-Africa relationship is taking.

As anticipation grows around when the 3rd India-Africa Forum Summit will be hosted, it is clear that the engagement needs to revitalised. What is needed is a pragmatic policy engagement on both sides that is informed by the following set of synergies that can strengthen the relationship. This includes:
A clearly defined strategic policy framework document that defines what informs the relationship and proposes how future engagements will be shaped.

A narrative that extends beyond historical platitudes and rhetoric, and is underlined by the pragmatism of successes and challenges that characterize relations.
In the overall analysis of the India-Africa engagement there are two issues that have to be dealt decisively by the current Modi government and the African partners. The first is for New Delhi to demonstrate and reassure that Africa’s place in India’s foreign policy reorientation has not been lost in its new hierarchy of its international engagements. The second issue is for African countries to define what it is they want out of the India engagement and not to fall into the trap of becoming junior partners in the relationship.

The 3rd India-Africa Forum Summit provides the opportunity for these issues to be dealt in a way that can be identified as moving towards strengthen synergies on both ends

This article was first published by the Millennium Post on the 22 March 2015

Sanusha Naidu is a Senior Research Fellow at Institute for Global Dialogue associated with Unisa. Her research interests include Democratisation in Africa; Africa’s Political Economy and Development; Africa’s relations with Emerging Powers from the South (BRICS and IBSA); South African Foreign Policy Analysis; and the role of track two diplomacy in International Relations

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