After five days of zipping across four countries along the eastern coast of Africa, Prime Minister Narendra Modi returned to India on Tuesday.
— PMO India (@PMOIndia) July 12, 2016
The visit was certainly significant for being Modi's first to mainland Africa, but also because it indicates a shift in India's foreign policy. As was pointed out in an earlier article, if the foreign focus of the first year of the NDA government was to reach out to neighbours and the world powers, then the second year's plan was to reach out to East and West Asia. Africa and the rest of the developing world seemed to have been neglected... until now.
What was signed
On the business end of things, Memoranda of Understanding were signed on a variety of issues ranging from defence cooperation and double taxation avoidance with Kenya and cooperation on water management with Tanzania, to the purchase of pulses from Mozambique and Information Communications Technology with South Africa.
Over the course of his interactions with the heads of these four countries, the theme of development was expected to feature strongly, and it did. Particularly, if the joint statements with Kenya (10 mentions), South Africa (19 mentions) and Tanzania (12 mentions) are anything to go by. (Note: There was no official India-Mozambique joint statement issued)
Getting into a few specifics, the India-Kenya joint statement spoke about the resolve of both countries to collaborate on defence (particularly on counter-terrorism and cyber security), green energy, healthcare and UN reform. The India-Tanzania joint statement spoke mainly of cooperation in agriculture (and related industries), water management and trade. Not entirely unexpectedly since South Africa is an important global partner for India, the far more lengthy joint statement between Modi and President Jacob Zuma went beyond bilateral areas of convergence. Understandings relating to Brics and the five-nation group's New Development Bank, Ibsa (the India-Brazil-South Africa group), the Indian Ocean Rim Association, G20 and WTO were also part of the communiqué.
What was said
Modi made no less than 12 speeches during his whistle-stop Africa visit and as anyone with even a passing interest in India's international relations will tell you, his international speeches are a good indicator — if not quite a statement of intent — of where New Delhi's foreign policy is headed. They are also indicative of the level at which bilateral relations with that particular country happen to be at that point in time.
For the purpose of this exercise, it's instructive to look beyond the grandstanding stadium addresses, the press statements and addresses to the business community, and focus instead on the banquet speeches he made over the course of the visit (including the 9 July speech at the mayor's reception in Durban).
Let's begin with Mozambique:
India-Mozambique relations are still very much at the first tier of bi-laterals (the concept of these tiers is being used for this piece), so it is important to lay some sort of foundation before getting into trickier topics. As a result, themes like a shared colonial past, people-to-people relations and the strength of both nations dominated his banquet speech in Maputo.
Mahatma Gandhi and cricket are probably two of the biggest links between India and South Africa, so they were always going to come up, but notice the shift when Modi addressed a partner on the second or third tier of bilateral relations. And so, in came topics of economic partnerships, shared global concerns and issues like diversity and plurality.
Relations with Tanzania are not quite as advanced as those with South Africa, but further along than those with Mozambique — deeper trade relations and a larger population of Indian expats. As a result, while first tier issues like friendship did come up in Dar-es-Salaam, so too did topics like economic cooperation and inter-dependence.
Kenya is home to a sizeable population of persons of Indian origin (around 80,000). India hosts a significant number of Kenyans (18,000), a number of who are students. As a result, education, shared experiences and people-to-people connections featured heavily in Modi's Nairobi speech.
What's should be next?
This visit may have been largely a 'high-on-optics' affair, but that is no reason it cannot be a starting point or a launchpad, if you will, to deeper and broader relations between India and the African continent. Modi's next African sojourn will need to take in West Africa, particularly countries like Nigeria, which is both an important trade partner and a potentially crucial partner in defence and counter-terrorism.
With every passing year, India continues to lose ground on China in Africa; 2016-2017 is the time Modi must choose to arrest this slide.
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Updated Date: Jul 12, 2016 14:22:35 IST