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Material and Moral Foundations of India's Africa Policy

India's Africa policy should be moored in values that address the tremendous socio-economic challenges in the continent and not in a crass geopolitical/material game for control of resources.


and energy resources of Africa. Indeed,

Material and Moral Foundations the Senegalese president was forthright

in highlighting the quid pro quo underly

of India’s Africa Policy

ing India’s current engagement with the African continent when he admitted that “[i]n return for sharing Indian know-how Deepak Malghan, Hema Swaminathan and investment resources, Africa’s rich

India’s Africa policy should be moored in values that address the tremendous socio-economic challenges in the continent and not in a crass geopolitical/ material game for control of resources.

Deepak Malghan ( is an ecological economist and renewable energy entrepreneur based in Bangalore. Hema Swaminathan (hema.swaminathan@iimb. is with the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore.

he recently concluded summit meeting of the India Africa Forum in New Delhi (April 8-9, 2008) has given fresh impetus to India’s increasing engagement with the African continent.1 The summit is being heralded as a new beginning, a “historic affirmation of [the] budding South-South relationship”.2 This relationship is conceived as an alternative to the repressive patron-client relationship between Africa and its erstwhile colonial masters. Africans have apparently found in India, a “leading trading partner who does not relate to it through the filter of dependence, charity, or a colonial mindset”.3 Indian leaders at the summit have highlighted the “historic ties” between India and Africa and echoed African sentiments on cooperation and multicultural engagement. In his inaugural address, prime minister Manmohan Singh declared that “[n]o one understands better than India and Africa the imperative need for global institutions to reflect current realities and to build a more equitable global economy and polity”.

Mainstream Indian English language media has enthusiastically welcomed India’s recent overtures towards Africa. Media reports suggest that the only problem, if any, with India’s African embrace is that it comes a little too late. We are told that like with everything else, China is miles ahead on the African safari. What actually lies behind this new-found interest in the erstwhile “dark continent”? Is there substance to the talk of multiculturalism and genuine south-south cooperation, or are the utterances of Indian and African leadership mere platitudes? What will this budding relationship deliver for ordinary Indians and Africans?

Geopolitical Considerations

As recognised by the media, India’s Africa policy is largely dictated by geopolitical considerations driven by the need to secure access to the abundant mineral but relatively untapped natural and human resources can help meet India’s rising demands for energy, food, and minerals”.4 The focus on Africa’s natural resources suggests that India is on a trajectory to become the next “new colonialist”.5 One might dismiss that the portrayal of China (and by extension, India) as a “new colonialist” by the Economist, only represents west’s resentment over the rise of Asia. West’s disgruntlement and double standards apart, India needs its own set of moral and ethical yardsticks to evaluate its international engagements.

Large-scale mining for mineral and oil is universally associated with gross violation of human dignity, and often coupled with utter disregard for the physical environment. India’s domestic record in the mining industry is dismal. For every Jaduguda or a Kashipur that makes it to the national media, there are tens of other communities that have long endured brutal repression and destitution. With no visible alternative in sight, some have turned to violent forms of redress like Naxalism. This is despite a relatively mature and functioning electoral democracy, however imperfect it may be. The poor Indian record, however, looks stellar in comparison with that of Africa, where millions have perished in civil wars and other violence directly related to control over oil and minerals. India’s planned engagement with Africa is directed mostly at resource-rich nations with an abysmal track record of democratic governance. For example, India plans to invest close to a billion dollars in the Angolan oil sector through the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation’s (ONGC) subsidiary, ONGC Videsh. This follows Angola’s recent admission to the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and a previous investment of over $ 2 billion by the Chinese. Angola has consistently ranked among the most corrupt governments in the world.6

Beyond the gold, copper, oil, or coltan, India also intends to “mine” African votes

Economic & Political Weekly

may 10, 2008


in various multilateral bodies. Partly as a result of the power struggle between Africa’s European colonisers, the continent is today divided into 54 independent nation states. The support of this large “Africa Bloc” is crucial to India’s ambitions to assert itself in multilateral forums

– none more important than gaining permanent representation on the all powerful United Nations security council.

The present model for India’s engagement with Africa is doubly dangerous because the brute force of corrupt states is combined with the raw power of unfettered capital in the marketplace. The investments that India seeks to make in Africa are unlikely to result in any significant growth in purchasing power for an ordinary African. The central logic of the marketplace is that market allocates goods and services based on purchasing power of various economic actors – economic demand is preferences aggregated by ability to pay, as any beginning student of economics will affirm. The various investments being envisaged in Africa under the garb of public-private partnership will not produce the goods and services that ordinary Africans need. The oil and diamonds from Africa will also contribute precious little to the consumption basket of the disadvantaged in India. Instead, the mineral wealth from Africa will further fuel the growing disparity between beneficiaries of India’s economic growth and the rest of the society (the large agrarian economy, and the urban poor). Real economic progress in India and Africa is contingent on being able to create a meaningful domestic market for goods and services that is accessible to entire societies.

Shared Challenges

Current socio-economic indicators suggest that the majority of Indians and Africans are far from minimum acceptable levels of well-being. High levels of poverty and income inequality, low levels of literacy, poor health indicators, and low status of women are some characteristics that India shares with many African nations. The table below presents select socio-economic data for a set of sub-Saharan African nations and India. According to the latest Human Development Report (2007), about 80 per cent of the population in India subsists on less than $ 2 per day and 30 per cent live below the national poverty line. In sub-Saharan Africa, the per cent of people living below national poverty lines ranges from 29 per cent in Benin to 71 per cent in Madagascar. India performs relatively better on measures of income inequality, but the worrisome feature is that it is estimated to be on the rise. India’s high growth performance has unfortunately not translated into improving essential services or enhancing welfare of its citizens. In the area of child welfare, India is among the most poorly performing nations. Almost 50 per cent of Indian children are undernourished. For India and many African nations, gender equality in all spheres – social, political, legal, and economic is still a distant goal. India could take a closer look at the political processes in Uganda and South Africa in achieving one-third representation of women in parliament. These shared



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human and social development challenges should form the basis of cooperation between India and Africa.

Western Controlled Game

Roger Cohen in a widely publicised column published in the International Herald Tribune and its parent, The New York Times, declared that “[i]t’s the end of the era of the white man; and, before it even began in earnest, of the white woman, too”.7 Is it really the end of the western era? In the context of the relationship between Asia (specifically India and China) and Africa, it is important to consider the geopolitical structure where Africa is conceived as the source of natural resources, and Asia as the global factory to convert resources into goods and services for western and increasingly, Asian consumption. Even as India, China, and west Asia have emerged as important financial centres, the global economic game continues to be scripted by the west, and certainly for the west. The resource-rich African societies will continue to be at the bottom of the heap as their natural resources are used to fuel global production and consumption.

Interacting with a group of soldiers from west Africa in January 1946 on the possibility of India and Africa learning from each other to achieve “cooperative industrialisation”, Gandhi observed that “[t]he commerce between India and Africa will be of ideas and services, not of the manufactured goods against raw materials after the fashion of the western exploiters”.8 While these words have been incessantly invoked to celebrate the developing relationship between India and Africa, there has been no attempt to understand their true import. The most important of “ideas and services” that Gandhi pioneered (beyond demonstrating the possibility of a mass politics based on truth and nonviolence), was his indigenous reinshould, craft its own visions of what constitutes modernity and progress.

The material might of the west is powered by its dominance in the realm of ideas. While the orthodox economic and political establishment peddle the mantra of universal and secular progress as the only transformative force available, the post-colonial and post-modern theorists revel in a polemical trashing of everything western or modern. The post-modern movement itself, like the orthodoxy has its origins in the west – it is largely fuelled by angst-ridden western academics reacting to the now familiar excesses of modern progress. Three of the most important personalities to have shaped thinking in contemporary India, Gandhi, Nehru, and Tagore, each recognised (albeit in very different ways), the dangers inherent in post-colonial reconstruction that is built on contempt for everything western or modern. All three offered original insights on how independent India should engage with the rest of the world by combining indigenous wisdom with the best of western modernity.

A Different Path

A genuine South-South relationship between India and Africa involves distinguishing between interests of Indian and African societies, and those of the states or the market. An equal relationship between diverse peoples is only possible at the societal level, and not through the homogenising institutions of state or the market. Unfortunately, the needs of supported despotic regimes in Africa to keep possible Soviet communist influence at bay. Following the end of the cold war, China stepped into Africa when western nations under pressure from their domestic civil society had to partially withdraw from lending support to corrupt and brutal regimes. India is now on the threshold of following its Asian neighbour. However, India can draw upon its own historical experiences to adopt a different path.

More than 50 years ago when Nehru led the deliberations at the first Asian-African conference held in Bandung (April 18-24, 1955), India was credited with standing firmly behind the aspirations of the newly independent nations in Asia and Africa. While the need for an independent foreign policy in the wake of the cold war inspired Nehru, he was also driven by genuine concern for the societies in Asia and Africa. Contemporary Indian statecraft sorely lacks this humanistic spirit. However, while incorporating Nehru’s moral vision into its Africa policy, India must also recognise the limitations of state as the primary driver of social transformation and progress.

The locus of India’s engagement with Africa ought to be the welfare of its citizens rather than the interests of the state or the market. India needs to adapt the so-called “track-II diplomacy” to direct interactions between Indian and African societies to focus on critical structural problems that limit social and human development of respective societies. India and Africa have a lot to offer to the world and much to learn from each other. This learning is

Table: India and Sub-Saharan Africa: Select Social and Human Development Data

Countries/ Population below Income Indicators Poverty Line (%)

$1 / Day $2 / Day National 1990-2005 1990-2005 Poverty Line 1990-04

Inequality Measures*

Richest Gini 10 % to Index Poorest


Children under Wt < Age 5 (%) 1996-2005

Infant Mortality Maternal Adult Literacy Parliament Rate/1,000 Deaths/ Rate (% Aged Seats Held Live Births 1,00,000 15 and Over) by Women

Poorest Richest Live Births 1995-2005 (% of Total) 20 % 20 % 2000** Female Male

Botswana 28 55.5 – 43 60.5 13 – – 100 81.8 80.4 11.1

Ghana 44.8 78.5 39.5 14.1 40.8 22 75 64 540 49.8 66.4 10.9

Nigeria 70.8 92.4 34.1 17.8 43.7 29 133 52 800 60.1 78.2 –

vention of the modernity project. The con-South Africa 10.7 34.1 – 33.1 57.8 12 62 17 230 80.9 84.1 32.8

temporary scramble for Africa’s mineral Uganda – – 37.7 16.6 45.7 23 106 60 880 57.7 76.8 29.8

wealth is ultimately inspired by the collective belief in the emancipatory powers of Enlightenment-inspired material progress. Even as Gandhi draws upon the egalitarian and humanist ideals contained in the Enlightenment project, he rejects the notion of universal modernity. For Gandhi, every society can, and more importantly,

Economic & Political Weekly

may 10, 2008

India 34.3 80.5 28.6 8.6 36.8 47 97 38 540 47.8 73.4

*: Different survey years. **: Population reference bureau. Source: Human Development Report tables, 2007.

the state or the market have always dominated Africa’s engagement with the rest of the world. During the cold war era that followed decolonisation of Africa, the west tolerated, and in some cases overtly only possible with greater interaction and exchange of ideas between academics, students, civil society, policymakers, artists, and other sections of the citizenry. The interaction needs to be multilayered


involving institutions, communities and individuals of all hues, and must be founded on mutual respect. An important first step to realise this is for Indians to recognise the diversity of the African continent and its historical and cultural experiences. Some obvious areas of practical collaboration include improving public health infrastructure (HIV and AIDS prevention and treatment in particular), enhancing gender equality, solving problems plaguing the agrarian economy, and more broadly, strengthening human capabilities. India and Africa stand at a historical juncture where they can, together, envision a future on their own terms. What is needed is cooperation on better governance, greater accountability, and a firm commitment to building just and sustainable societies.


1 The official Summit programme is available on the worldwide web at: org/root/au/Conferences/2008/april/India-Africa/India-Africa.html

2 M Abdoulaye Wade, ‘Why India Is Essential to Africans’, The Hindu, April 7, 2008. Wade is president of Republic of Senegal.

3 Ibid.

4 ‘Why India Is Essential to Africans’, The Hindu, April 7, 2008.

5 Economist, March 13, 2008.

6 See, for example, global governance rankings published by Transparency International.

7 Roger Cohen, ‘The Baton Passes to Asia’, The New York Times, March 31, 2008, OPED Column. Also published in the International Herald Tribune, March 30, 2008.

8 Harijan, February 24, 1946. Gandhi met with west African soldiers around January 26, 1946, in Madras where he was participating in the “Indepen dence Day” celebrations. Also see D G Tendulkar D G, Mahatma, Publication Division, Government of India, 1953, Volume 7, p 46.

May 10, 2008

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