It’s so big on paper it sounds like a spectacle. The third India-Africa summit, said to be India’s largest diplomatic event since commonwealth and non-aligned movement (NAM) summits of 1983 – and delayed owing to Ebola by almost a year – will finally be held between October 26 and 29 in New Delhi.
The summit, according to the official website, will enable “consultations between the heads of government of 54 nations across Africa and the Indian government to give a new thrust to our age-old partnership”. But since hosting 1,000 odd delegates could be a logistical nightmare, the government had a hard time choosing the venue. In the end it was decided to convert the Indira Gandhi stadium into a makeshift convention centre.
Preparations are also underway for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s photo-ops with the state heads: theIndian Express reported last week that the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has written to all consulate offices of African countries to send the measurements of their heads of state for a half-sleeved kurtaand a churidar pajama.
What is the hullaballoo about, really?
In the cold war era of 1950s and ’60s, India played a crucial role in NAM and the first Asian-African conference at Bandung (Indonesia). But after Jawahar Lal Nehru’s death, the idea of South-South cooperation slowly waned. It was only after liberalisation, and the aspirations of becoming a global power that followed, that India began afresh an institutionalised interaction with Africa.
In 2008, Delhi hosted the first India-Africa forum summit (IAFA). But now the quid pro quo, as Senegalese president Maitre Abdoulaye Wade said, was: “In return for sharing Indian know-how and investment resources, Africa’s rich but relatively untapped natural and human resources can help meet India’s rising demand for energy, food, and minerals.”
The second IAFA held in Addis Ababa in 2011 also had a similar focus. The India-Africa trade currently stands at around $70 billion, and is expected to reach $100 billion soon. Since 2008, India has pledged over $8.5 billion in Lines of Credit for different development projects all across Africa; almost 65% of this loan package has been disbursed.
The third summit, notwithstanding the unfulfilled promises, is grander than the previous two: earlieronly 12-14 countries, based on the Banjul formula adopted by the African Union, were chosen to represent Africa on global summits. 2015 is the first time India decided to expand the partnership by inviting all 54 African countries, following what China had done a decade ago. In fact, the Beijing Summit Forum on China-Africa Cooperation held in 2006 also had a similar theme of “friendship, peace, cooperation and development.”
Unsurprisingly then, the 2015 summit is being seen as India’s way of competing with China in what is really world’s most resource-rich continent. “India can’t counter China’s increasing influence in Africa, but the Indian government wants to ensure that it doesn’t get left too far behind.” says Tribhuwan Prasad, who is with the Delhi University’s Department of African Studies. “But more than China, it’s about the diaspora,” Prasad clarifies.
India has had a thriving diaspora in different parts of Africa, in some countries for more than a century. But as a community Indians generally had a reputation of not mingling with the local population. “The times have changed.
According to Prasad, though, in the last one decade, “it’s the African diaspora in India that has spread really fast”. Closely related to the question of African diaspora in India is the racial discrimination of African citizens here. While the MEA has been posting videos on its social media feeds of how Africans in India feel blessed, there have been many incidents, which prove otherwise.
Ray says Africans she meets at summits and elsewhere often allege that the Indian media is Africa-blind. “Most of what we get to know about Africa is through Western media. So we continue to look at Africans through the prism of poverty, deprivation and other stereotypes.” The West has clearly moved on, while India, with a history of ritual purity, continues to have an aesthetic that looks down on dark skin. The solution, according to Ray, is “more people-to-people interaction – through media, diaspora, and educational exchange programmes. Changing mindsets will take time, but these steps are necessary.” Except that one doesn’t know if cultural engagement would be given much importance in the October summit.