Narendra Modi’s re-election as India’s Prime Minister: Implications for Africa

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Narendra Modi’s re-election as India’s Prime Minister: Implications for Africa

Abhijnan Rej

27 Jun 2019

6min min read
  • International relations

arendra Modi’s re-election as the Prime Minister of India in May 2019 off the back of an electoral landslide signals that the country’s foreign policy will move along the direction set by him in his first term. Between 2014 and 2019, the Modi government aggressively reached out to the world to secure India the status of a “leading power” as opposed to “being merely an influential entity,” as noted by the Indian-American scholar, Ashley Tellis.  This included engaging with key geographies that merited greater outreach – such as continental Africa – which had been relatively neglected by previous Indian administrations. 

With Subrahmanyam Jaishankar now serving as Modi’s new foreign minister (Jaishankar previously served as India’s chief diplomat during Modi’s first term), it can be argued that New Delhi will double-down on key foreign-policy areas over the next five years in its quest to become a leading power. It is fair to expect that among them would be a continued focus on India-Africa relations, moving beyond traditional policy areas such as trade and development, to include newer initiatives in the maritime sphere, revolving around maritime and digital connectivity across the Indian Ocean. 

Engaging Africa: beyond the solidarity rhetoric

Modi’s emphasis on continental Africa became evident when – a year after his election in his first term – the Indian government hosted the 4th India-Africa Forum Summit, in October 2015. For the first time in independent India’s history, New Delhi saw 40 African heads of state in town simultaneously. Since then, India’s president, vice president, and prime minister have conducted more than 23 official visits to the continent. Modi’s July 2018 trip to the continent, timed to coincide with the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, included addressing the Ugandan parliament – a first for any Indian prime minister.

Modi is hardly the first Indian prime minister to recognise the importance of Africa for New Delhi. Shaped by shared colonial experience, India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s philosophy of Afro-Asian solidarity – as espoused for the first time in 1955 in the Bandung conference –  paved the way for the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). The NAM consists of countries that, at least at a rhetorical level, refused to be beholden to either the Soviet Union or the US during the Cold War and continues to eschew great-power politics today. That said, as Indian scholar C. Raja Mohan has noted, while “India’s sustained solidarity with the developing world won it goodwill […], there was a little material substance in India’s bilateral engagement with these countries.” 

"While this is not the first time India and China have competed for influence in energy-rich African states... the magnitude of Beijing’s outreach under the BRI has energised New Delhi’s efforts in this regard."

In contrast, Modi’s outreach to Africa has been pragmatic, driven more by India’s national interests and much less by any putative ideology. Modi’s government remains fundamentally unconvinced about the relevance of NAM, for example.

Key among these interests is securing a footing in Africa at a time when China’s influence is growing at an exponential pace. Driving China’s engagement with Africa is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). With resource access at the heart of it, the BRI seeks to connect China to the rest of the world both through overland (the ‘Belt’) and sea (the ‘Maritime Silk Road’) routes supported by the development of significant infrastructure projects. While this is not the first time India and China have competed for influence in energy-rich African states – both countries have had significant petroleum interests in Sudan and South Sudan, for example – the magnitude of Beijing’s outreach under the BRI has energised New Delhi’s efforts in this regard. 

Credit and skills diplomacy

Over the past five years, India has taken concrete steps to consolidate its continental outreach, including extending USD 10 billion in lines of credit for African states in 2015. However, aware that India cannot match China dollar-for-dollar in term of aid or investment, India has also sought alternative methods of engagement. For example, India has launched a so-called ‘skill diplomacy’ programme under Modi, through which India has partnered with eight African states to train entrepreneurs and create jobs in their respective countries. New Delhi has also sought to increase digital connectivity with continental Africa. In Modi’s first term, this included the creation of “e-VidyaBharati” and “e-ArogyaBharati” tele-education and tele-medicine networks that connected Indian academic institutions to their African counterparts. 

Such apparently small initiatives are very much central to Modi’s overall outreach strategy when it comes to Africa: building local capacity to increase sovereign agency in light of China’s expansion across the continent. These programmes – New Delhi conjectures –enable African states to chart their own foreign-policy course and resist Chinese economic coercion in what many countries (including India) see as Beijing’s ‘debt diplomacy’. Research shows, for example, that “for three African countries — Djibouti, Congo and Zambia — Chinese loans are the most significant contributor to debt distress.” 

Modi’s emphasis on building African capacity became evident in his address to the Ugandan parliament in 2018 when he noted: “Our development partnership will be guided by your priorities. We will build as much local capacity and create as much local opportunities as possible. It will be on terms that will be comfortable for you, that will liberate your potential and not constrain your future.” The indirect swipe at China was unmistakeable. Indeed, the desire to increase sovereign agency among African states is very much driven by New Delhi’s interest to contain Beijing’s influence across the continent as the two compete for primacy.

Modi-fying India’s Africa policy

Looking ahead, growing geostrategic competition between India and China – particularly in light of the BRI - is likely to be the primary driver that shapes the future of New Delhi’s relations with African capitals. Here, India’s adoption of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ as a single integrated maritime space may prove to be pivotal, as it looks to create a connected region that extends from the Pacific (off the eastern coast of Australia) to the eastern shoreline of the African continent. 

As Chinese initiatives in that vast oceanic space have increased through the BRI, India has also committed to providing alternatives to states in that region as part of several small groupings, most notably the US-Japan-India trilateral which takes regional infrastructural development as a key objective. While that grouping has so far failed to deliver concrete results, bilateral arrangements within that grouping are likely to be more fruitful going forward, especially the ambitious India-Japan Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC).

Proponents claim this initiative will provide enhanced maritime connectivity between Asia and Africa, increasing economic linkages between the two continents. Driven by the India-Japan ‘Vision 2025’ as outlined in 2015, the AAGC is expected to enhance connectivity between Asia and the east coast of continental Africa through the development of suitable infrastructure. This vision includes plans to connect ports in Kenya (Mombasa) and Zanzibar (Tanzania) to ports in southern India and onwards to Southeast Asia. In many ways, Japan is an ideal partner, as it has added the much-needed financial muscle to India’s plans for the continent. Tokyo is expected to invest USD 200 billion into developing the maritime Corridor, for example. 

However, the AAGC will not only provide the ‘hardware’ of connectivity in terms of infrastructure, but it will also develop  the ‘software’, so to speak, by promoting norms around open and free trade between the two continents. A former Indian ambassador to Ethiopia and the African Union, Gurjit Singh, assesses that the key feature of the AAGC will be “to elicit [African] private-sector engagement rather than participation only by state-owned companies”. Such an initiative is likely to increase business-to-business connections across the two continents, solidifying commercial engagement in direct competition to Beijing.

While in the immediate future India’s relationship with the US, China as well as its immediate neighbours are likely to consume a significant part of New Delhi’s diplomatic energy, smart money would be on Modi staying the pragmatic course on India-Africa relations. In terms of the contours of Modi’s Africa policy in his second term, India is expected to use both soft and hard power across the continent in direct competition to China’s growing presence. A key event to look out for within the next six months, is the BRICS Summit in Brazil in November where New Delhi is expected to renew its call for the consolidation of multilateral trade regimes based on World Trade Organisation norms. 

(Main image: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends the open session meeting of the 10th BRICS summit (acronym for the grouping of the world's leading emerging economies, namely Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) on July 26, 2018 at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa - Themba Hadebe/AFP/Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.