Most publications and television channels took time to figure out—and some still haven’t—that the first India-Africa summit was not just about extending duty-free preferential market access to Africa’s least developed countries. Still, it would seem that most editors, after the initial surprise of seeing so many African leaders on a Delhi stage, sighed and moved the story—right to the back of the paper.
Even the gala Africa evening, with the beautifully lit Purana Qila as the backdrop, sank without a trace. All those drummers and dancers from Senegal and Ethiopia and other sub-Saharan countries reminded those of us old enough to remember about the time when Kathakali or Koodiyattam performers (from Kerala) regaled audiences in Paris and Frankfurt, Geneva and London.
Those Festivals of India were a major hallmark of the Rajiv Gandhi era, when culture was harnessed in the service of diplomacy. The performers themselves were considered hugely exotic and created a bit of a stir in all those capitals. But the truth is that until India arrived as an economic powerhouse on the world stage a decade later, the so-called cultural invasion of Europe was a non-starter.
The same lesson could also apply to India and Africa. Except, in this case, Indian businessmen are already criss-crossing the continent, looking for opportunities for both trade and investment in sectors as diverse as petroleum products, horticulture and uranium.
The difference is, in the 1980s, when the government promoted the country, Indian business was loath to follow the flag. In Africa’s case, today, Indian entrepreneurs are going to places most Indian embassies and consulates have never even heard of. Beyond a point, New Delhi is simply unwilling to brandish the flag across the old continent.
For example, Tanzania, Ghana and Ethiopia are among a handful of African countries which have offered thousands and thousands of acres of fallow land for tilling by Indian farmers. But the ministry of external affairs has consistently refused the offer saying it “does not want to draw too much attention to India’’.
When China can put both guns and money in Sudan, all for the sake of a few million barrels of oil, thereby encouraging Khartoum to ignore Western calls to resolve the ethnic conflict in Darfur, India’s overwhelming hesitation to not get closely involved is seen by many Africans as a sign of weakness.
Unless the flag follows trade, and indeed, aggressively trumpets the Indian presence, Delhi’s ambitious African initiative could very easily fall into the also-ran category.
The government must also push businessmen to tear themselves away from the bright lights of London and Washington, and look closer home at the virgin fields of South Asia. Unless big business invests in Nepal and Bangladesh and Pakistan, Delhi’s geo-strategic interests in the neighbourhood will suffer.
The elections in Nepal provide India with a great opportunity. The jan andolan, or people’s movement, which forced the 200-year-old monarchy to cede power in 2006, will, with these polls, probably end that dictatorial regime today.
Nepal, in fact, could well become the regional model for win-win situations between government and business.
And, for a change, Delhi has taken the lead. The government is promoting road and rail linkages across the open border at several points. Bridges are being spanned within Nepal and culverts covered. The mammoth infrastructure initiative undertaken by the government is a classic case of putting its money where its mouth is.
In fact, in neighbouring Bihar, people complain that the Central government does less for the state than it does for a neighbour.
The only tragedy is that business is lagging far behind. Hardly anyone wants to join business delegations to Nepal. Both industry lobbies, CII and Ficci, are hard put to find sexy names to man these, because they’re all too busy doing business in faraway Europe and America.
But times have changed and in Nepal they have changed the most. Nepalese politicians are in the forefront, wanting India to re-establish a presence in their landlocked country. Significantly, the old mindset in Nepal, of playing India against China, has begun wearing extremely thin.
Nepal’s elections are a good time for India to rethink its entire South Asian policy. Only a few months ago, Delhi dropped its objections to Bangladeshis investing in India. (The ban had been in force for the longest time, ostensibly because of security considerations.)
The ban on Pakistani investment in India and vice-versa stays.
But if India has to fly the flag, both in South Asia and in Africa, business and government have no alternative, but to work together.
That’s what will make editors of mainstream newspapers sit up, stifle their yawns—and put all these stories on the front page.
Jyoti Malhotra is Mint’s diplomatic affairs editor and writes on the intersection of foreign policy, trade and politics every week. Comments are welcome at email@example.com