With the Modi government planning to host representatives of more than 50 African States in New Delhi from 26 to 29 October, it is time to understand what this means for India, the reason for this sudden interest and what the dimensions are of this engagement.
First the ground realities. Despite the warmth and fraternity that draws from the common fight against colonialism and the support India extended to the struggle against apartheid and the desire to make common cause in an inequitable world order, India has not focused enough on Africa.
Today, we have embassies only in 29 of the 54 African states that we have diplomatic relations with. On the other hand, 42 African countries have their missions in Africa. The same restricted approach to engagement was reflected in the two Africa Summits held under the Manmohan Singh government.
In 2007, only 14 leaders participated at the first India-Africa Summit in Delhi while at the second Summit at Addis Ababa in 2011 it was 12 leaders. The Indian target this time is to ensure that at least 40 African heads of state/government turn up.
The Modi government's inclusive and non-discriminatory approach of inviting all 54 African countries with which India has diplomatic relations seems by all accounts to have been widely welcomed. As many as 35 leaders said to have already confirmed participation two months prior to the Summit, even as Indian Special Envoys are reaching out to the rest during the course of this month.
In short, Africa has more than adequately responded to the Modi government's overtures. This gathering of leaders will be the largest India has hosted since 1983 November when 33 of the Commonwealth leaders gathered in New Delhi in response to Mrs Indira Gandhi's invite.
The inclusive 'all of Africa' engagement therefore is a good first step. It reflects PM Modi's view that India's foreign policy is moving from a balancing role to a leadership role.
Only three other countries - China, Japan and USA have engaged the entire African continent. So this summit is the Modi government's coming out party as a leader rather than a bit player in international relations. Coupled with the Pacific Islands summit earlier in August, India would have hosted over 70 leaders in about 2 months. Clearly the Modi government is playing for big stakes in the international arena.
Now the question arises of what is there in it for India in this all of Africa engagement. To a discerning observer, Africa is crucial to every issue of interest in international relations in the long term.
Security Council permanent membership can only materialise if Africa supports India.
International terror is fast becoming a major challenge for Africa - Boko Haram, Al Shabab or the terror groups in the Sinai, or Tunisia have brought home to several African states that terror is no longer a distant threat. India and Africa need to make common cause in terms of declaratory and practical support to each other.
Africa is fast becoming a major supplier of India's energy needs with already 20 percent of oil imports sourced from there.
Modi's gambit for an international solar group as a practical response to climate change concerns will involve getting support of nearly 50 African states who will constitute almost half of the entire group of 100 odd countries who can join together.
Africa, even though the oldest continent, has amongst the youngest population and can make common cause with India on matters such as health and education. Indian models in both these areas can work for Africa too.
Agriculture is another area where India can both gain from the outputs of large tracts of arable lands (Onions from Egypt is most recent example) and also support by providing expertise.
For all these reasons Modi's 'all of Africa' gambit needs to be watched more closely than forays to distant lands. In the long run the potential of this quiet but strategically serious effort far outweighs many others that may have garnered more attention.
Updated Date: Sep 07, 2015 07:38:58 IST