Why we must not take the India-Africa Summit 2015 any less lightly
Feting more than 50 African leaders in one room is one good way of telling the world that India cannot be ignored for much longer.
- Total Shares
Forget Prime Minister Narendra Modi's big buzz tours to the US or Australia or China over the last year or even his coming visit to the UK where Wembley Stadium is being commandeered for a big NRI party or to Moscow where both strongmen, Modi and Vladimir Putin, could launch themselves into an embrace promising new vigour and sustenance.
Forget the travails in Nepal, stop wringing your hands in the Maldives, and for another week or so push to the back of your mind the do-and-die political battle that is being waged in Bihar.
'Tis the season of India and Africa these days, soon after Dussehra and a little before Diwali. By October 29, when D-Day dawns, more than 50 heads of state and government - out of 54 countries in the African continent - will have assembled in the capital, the biggest ever gathering of world leaders in India since Indira Gandhi was engulfed in a Fidel Castro bear hug at the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in 1983 (when 51 leaders from 91 countries had attended).
A few statistics will give you a sense of the incredible effort that has been launched towards Modi's coming out party with Africa: The biggest leaders from the Maghreb as well as Black Africa, including the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and the South African President Jacob Zuma, are coming; at least 3,000 delegates have registered and all hotel rooms have been booked out from October 26-30 in Delhi; as many as 27 flights carrying kings and elected leaders, from Mohammed VI of Morocco to Mauritania's Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, have confirmed they will be landing at Palam Airport.
At least for three days, PM Modi will abandon Bihar to focus on India's aspirations as a power-to-be-reckoned with. There is, of course, the barely concealed desire to become a permanent member of a revamped Security Council - as the world's largest democracy which has paid its dues in a variety of international circumstances, including peace-keeping, India's time is now.
Feting more than 50 African leaders in one room is one good way of telling them as well as the rest of the world that India cannot be ignored for much longer.
There is also the unspoken competition with that other Asian power, China, which is also hosting its own version of the big summit with Africa in December, its sixth so far.
(This is India's third summit with Africa, and 14 countries participated in the last one in 2007.) Interestingly, India seems to be holding its own on the India versus China front so far, with Africa-India trade touching $90-100bn, while China-Africa trade is not much farther ahead, at $160bn.
Certainly, many of the leaders who are coming are also curious about Modi himself - and less diplomatically, want to get to know the man who unseated the Gandhis from power. Modi has certainly created a frisson of excitement during his travels abroad, shaking hands with the Google guys, the UAE's sheikhs and Fiji Islanders. In contrast, the latest Gandhi scion seems to have gone to sleep, thereby making indistinct what was once a unique bond between the Congress party and the democratic African movements. The importance of Africa cannot be underestimated.
The continent is at least ten times larger than India, with about the same population (1.1bn people) and enormously rich in natural resources. But unlike China, which has been vacuuming Africa's mines and minerals with breathtaking efficiency without any particular regard to the people who owns those resources - the US think tank, Brookings, has found a negative correlation with China's Africa investments and the World Bank's Rule of Law index, meaning China has little problem with investing in Africa's corrupt countries - India's Africa model has so far been much more partnership-oriented.
The contrast is obvious. While China built a fancy building for the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, all spit and polish, and handed it over to the Africans, India has preferred to engage with countries through training and sharing of resources.
Not that the Indian model is perfect. Some years ago, Delhi offered Namibia a Cobalt 60 Bhabhatron machine for cancer treatment and offered to train Namibian personnel to handle the machine - except, it insisted, the machine would only be installed once the Namibians built a reinforced chamber to keep the gamma rays inside. But the Namibians said they couldn't afford to do so and so the machine lay unused for a few years…
Finally, of course, India built the chamber as well as gifted the machine and trained Namibians in its use, but it had learnt its lesson. It was all very well to, theoretically, teach people how to fish instead of giving them fish to eat - as the colonial French and British and Belgians had done so beautifully for 200 years or so, and what several Africans accuse China of doing today - but how do you partner with weak nations to each other's benefit?
If India and Africa can honestly debate this difficult question during the Big Summit, all the effort will be well worth it. Once the tamasha ends, it's imperative that a few big ideas sustain this age-old connection, indeed, redress it for the new century that is so firmly upon us.