Books on international relations are written either by former diplomats, who take up writing as a hobby, or scholars, who pursue research and analysis as a profession. Diplomats tend to reminisce on their experiences, linking them with the history of the country concerned and provide personal accounts of their accomplishments, which are a useful source material for scholars, who do not have the opportunity to deal with events and personalities. Rajiv Bhatia, a consummate diplomat, in his monumental work, India-Africa Relations, Changing Horizons , has taken on the mantle of the scholar, rather than the diplomat. Autobiographical elements in the book are few and far between.
Yen, past links
To take the case of Kenya, where Bhatia and I served, our bilateral relations were correct and cordial at best as Kenya was preoccupied with seeking development assistance from developed countries and our modest assistance programme, to which they had to contribute a share, was not very attractive to them. When we sought the Kenyan vote in a crucial election against Japan for a non-permanent seat at the Security Council, President Arap Moi told me frankly that Japan had raised bilateral assistance substantially in return for his vote. Kenya did not feel obliged to support India as a developing country, with which it had historical and sentimental ties. The yen mattered more than the linkages of the past.
Former Foreign Secretary Krishnan Srinivasan, in his foreword, has outlined the hazards of treating Africa as a Union, since it is a continent of diverse nations and India’s relations with each country has to be studied separately. Bhatia identifies only 15 countries with which India had substantial interactions in spite of the non-aligned and commonwealth links. On the issue of expansion of the permanent membership of the Security Council, Africa, with its demand for two permanent seats to be rotated in the region, has created considerable confusion.
The book concentrates on the first two decades of the 21stcentury, which came after I left the continent and, therefore, his sympathetic and hopeful narration of the period and his hopes for the future offer helpful new insights for readers like me. “The emerging economies, such as China and India, led the charge. Yet the old challenges persisted. It was against this backdrop that those arguing for Afro-realism proved convincing; their principal conclusion was that Africa was performing well, but it needed to do much better,” says Bhatia.
The global attention and competition among major players like the European Union, Japan, Korea, India and China have given rise to expectations that the next century belongs to Africa and that Africa will grow dramatically by 2035. At the same time, a more realistic assessment is that as many as 22 African countries were classified as having a low level of readiness to benefit from the technological revolution sweeping the world. “In view of the substantial gap between aspirations of the future and achievements so far, it may be tempting for some to mock or dismiss Africa’s prospects. However, a respectful and empathetic attitude is recommended,” says Bhatia. He admiringly quotes Cyril Ramaphosa, President of South Africa, as having said in 2019: “This is Africa’s century, and we want to utilize it to good effect.”
The dawn of the new century marked a “scramble for Africa” and India was also compelled to move on from the political, ideological, peacekeeping, development assistance and cultural cooperation to new areas of technological cooperation. We had to contend with the scramble and unregulated competition from major and middle powers. China was in a class by itself, with the formation of a Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in October 2000 with an ambitious programme.
Bhatia has devoted a large part of his book to the rationale, the details and the impact of India’s Africa cooperation programme. Prime Minister Modi asserted that “India is honoured to be a development partner for Africa. It is a partnership beyond strategic concerns and economic benefits. It is formed from the emotional bonds we share and the solidarity we feel for each other.”
Africa has also welcomed the increase in the number of visits of Indian dignitaries to Africa and the Indian decision to open new diplomatic missions in Africa. But Bhatia points out that, in the light of the Chinese experience, India should deepen the political commitment to Africa, set aside sizeable financial resources and increase our capability for project execution.
The continental, regional, bilateral, diaspora and other dimensions of India-Africa cooperation have been analysed in detail to show the prospects for Africa in the coming years. It is inevitable that de-globalisation, debt and digitalisation, the three mega trends in the world will shape Africa’s economic future. India has special capabilities in these areas.
Bhatia has established beyond doubt that India-Africa relations have grown from strength to strength and that the future is promising. But he has also admitted that there are many milestones to cross before it can be claimed credibly that “India and Africa are among the highest priorities for each other.” The reality is that strategically, politically and economically, India and Africa are still far apart and much more needs to be done.
India-Africa Relations: Changing Horizons; Rajiv Bhatia, Routledge, ₹995.
The reviewer is a Former Ambassador, and Director General, Kerala International Centre.