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Djibouti’s infant mortality is similar to Assam’s, literacy in Uganda is roughly at the same level as in Madhya Pradesh and Kenya faces frequent floods not unlike Bihar. While the presidents of Djibouti, Uganda and Kenya were present at the Third India-Africa Forum Summit held last week, the chief ministers of the Indian states were nowhere to be seen. It is at such mega-level summits that chief ministers should be invited to explore opportunities of cooperation that go beyond the usual highfalutin statements and speeches.

One could read reams of opinion pieces in the past two weeks lamenting the decline of India’s influence, relative to China’s, in the continent of Africa. The decline can be traced to Chinese premier Zhou Enlai outshining Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru at the Bandung Conference of 1955, participated in by a number of Asian and African countries. The Chinese edge, over the years, has been bolstered by its bottomless pockets and unremitting diplomatic focus. One aspect that the commentators have completely missed out is the economic integration that Chinese provinces have assiduously cultivated with different countries in Africa.

In a 2009 paper, Chinese Provinces as Foreign Policy Actors in Africa, Chen Zhimin and Jian Junbo pointed, “Almost all the provincial governments (in China) have adopted systemic measures to promote trade with the continent." A significant portion of China’s outbound foreign direct investments is channelled through state-owned enterprises at the provincial and local levels.

It is the field of humanitarian aid and assistance that has seen one of the most innovative mechanisms for provinces to play a role outside China’s borders. The central government decides the level of assistance and broad policy framework but the implementation is left to the provinces. This has been achieved by a pairing arrangement in which one province is made responsible for a particular African country. For instance, Shanghai was paired with Morocco and Gansu with Madagascar. Of late, the provinces have begun to supplement the central aid for African countries. Provincial leaders have also utilized the route of sister-city relationships to make several travels to Africa and explore opportunities of trade and investment.

During his visit to China earlier this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang started the India-China Forum of State Provincial Leaders to encourage cooperation between provinces and cities. Such opportunities should be explored with other large countries and continents like Africa.

It is true that India cannot match the deep pockets of China. But India has to recognize that meaningful cooperation fostered at the state and local levels with African governments, municipalities and societies can create enough goodwill to overpower the effect of Chinese investments, which are increasingly facing social and political backlash. The environmental damage and labour exploitation in several projects across the continent have engineered a blowback for China in China’s Second Continent, as the book by Howard W. French calls Africa.

Africa is undoubtedly an important partner for the foreign policy objectives of the Indian government. The reforms of the multilateral organizations such as the United Nations cannot happen without the African nations on board.

Similarly, India would find Africa a useful partner in setting the global norms on the contentious issues of trade and intellectual property. However, there is a whole range of issues on which sub-national governments cooperating with African countries can create a win-win situation for everyone.

A number of Indian states and African countries share the scourge of poverty and malnutrition. Both India and Africa struggle to provide quality education to children and healthcare to citizens. Both are trying to reform the state delivery of services. Many Indian states and African countries are trying to extend the rule of law into areas afflicted by insurgencies. Some of the Indian states have done a commendable job in reforming the state services and penetrating into heretofore unreached areas, winning the legitimacy battle against extremists. Sharing the best practices, experiences and technology will be of immense use to all the stakeholders.

Modi has done well to give a call for cooperative federalism. It is important that it does not remain just a catchword, but is implemented in policy areas across all possible frontiers.

Should state governments be allowed to take greater part in international summits? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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