Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced on Tuesday that India would provide lines of credit worth $5 billion over the next three years to African governments to fund their development plans. Bharti Group chairman Sunil Mittal said on the same day that his telecom company would invest around $1 billion to expand its network in 16 African countries.
These two statements show that India should use a two-pronged strategy to establish its presence in Africa, with both the government and the private sector playing a role. Africa is seen by some as the last frontier because of its rich resource base, and has been the staging ground of a tussle between India and China to gain influence. Both emerging powers need minerals, fuel and food for their expanding economies and richer populations.
China is a bit ahead in the game, thanks to both its early moves into Africa and its readiness to conduct business with even the most repressive regimes. Even what happened in the killing fields of Darfur did not prevent it from helping the government of Sudan, despite an international arms embargo.
The pursuit of national interest does make countries turn a blind eye to domestic policies of some regimes. But China has shown a greater willingness to do so in Africa than India has, which is just as well since the gentler Indian approach may pay off in the long run as the democracy wave splashes over African despots.
Contracts between governments—though the centrepiece of any engagement policy—often leave the ordinary citizen unmoved. It can sometimes be all about arms sales, energy deals and building large rail and port projects. This is where the private sector can play a role, providing job opportunities to ordinary Africans and helping them acquire skills. India may have lagged behind China in the race to Africa right now, but the government can use the dynamic private sector to close the gap. The investments by business groups such as the Tatas and the Mittals are a good start.
Democratic India or authoritarian China: Who will power ahead in Africa? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org