India-Africa Changing Relations and India's Diaspora Diplomacy

Africa Diary By Dr. Viacheslav Usov

Addressing the audience, President Pranab Mukherjee praised Ghanaian Indians as dynamic ambassadors of India's soft power and ‘force multiplier’ of India's growing economic strength. He also called upon Indian Diaspora in Africa to actively take part in various programs the Indian Government has embarked upon such as Digital India, Stand-Up India, Start-Up India and many more.

This summer sees an unprecedented level of Indian diplomatic activities in Africa. First, from 30th May 2016 the Vice President of India Hamid Ansari undertook a five-day visit to Morocco and Tunisia. He was followed by the President of India Pranab Mukherjee, who just a few days later visited 3 African countries – Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire and Namibia. Promising to forge ‘a new relationship’ with Africa, President Pranab Mukherjee has assured people in the continent that India is with them in "all their struggles". This message was conveyed not only during the talks with the African leaders but through the meetings with Indian Diaspora representatives.

Special attention was given to the meeting of the Indian President with representatives of the 10,000 large, and vibrant, Indian community in Ghana. Addressing the audience, President Pranab Mukherjee praised Ghanaian Indians as dynamic ambassadors of India's soft power and ‘force multiplier’ of India's growing economic strength. He also called upon Indian Diaspora in Africa to actively take part in various programs the Indian Government has embarked upon such as Digital India, Stand-Up India, Start-Up India and many more. The visits of the President and Vice President of India to five African countries are regarded as a part of efforts to build on diplomatic gains from the third India-Africa Forum Summit (IAFS) held in October 2015 and also seen as a preliminary step for the planned visit of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya in July 2016 which should be the culmination of the Indian diplomatic 'offensive' in Africa.

For years, the IAFS has been considered the most important event in the field of India-Africa relations. The IAFS 2015 set new objectives such as $10 billion in new credit line over the next five years promised by the Indian Prime Minister Modi to Africa, an offer to African countries of 50,000 scholarships in India for the same period of time, and grant aid of $600 million. The content of IAFS 2015 resembled its 2008 and 2011 predecessors but on a much larger scale. While 41 heads of state and government, and hundreds of senior officials from 54 African countries attended the IAFS. Indian Prime Minister spoke about the results of the last IAFS and in the current forms of India-Africa relations in general was heard in his remarks during the IAFS. It was also reported in reference to one of senior Indian officials that “The PM wants to use this opportunity (visit to four African countries in July 2015) to review how the announced Indian project in Africa has been implemented”.

During the visit PM Narendra Modi is also expected to seek further strengthening of economic as well as maritime ties with these African countries. Energy cooperation, food security, ‘blue economy’, education, health, skill-building and infrastructure will be the key topics of discussion for the Indian Prime Minister with his African counterparts. For Ruchita Beri, from the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, the visit will also serve the purpose of conveying to African countries that India wants to keep up its engagement with Africa and it is not waiting till next IAFS to connect. Besides meetings with African leaders PM Narendra Modi will meet the Indian Diaspora representatives in several African capitals. The grand community reception in South African economic capital Johannesburg is expected to cross 10,000 registered participants.

Nurturing ties with Indian Diaspora was articulated as one of the priorities of Narendra Modi’s external policy even before his victory in the Indian general elections in May 2014. Since then, PM Narendra Modi has successfully reached out to the substantial Indian Diaspora, particularly the wealthier section living in Europe and North America. For the Indian Prime Minister and ruling coalition, Diaspora policy is an essential element in their foreign policy strategy. “We are changing the contours of diplomacy and looking at new ways of strengthening India’s interests abroad”, said Ram Madhav, General Secretary of the ruling Bharata Janata Party (BJP). “They can be India’s voice even while being loyal citizens in those countries. That is the long-term goal behind the diaspora diplomacy. It is like the way the Jewish community looks out for Israel’s interests in the United States”.

The idea of Indians abroad to be ‘Ambassadors of India’ is not new. The first BJP government in the beginning of 2000s established a High Level Committee on Indian Diaspora (HLC) which issued a Report that defined the framework of a new Indian policy in relation to its Diaspora and set the priorities in the field including the idea of a dual citizenship for some sections of the ethnic Indians living abroad. The new BJP-led Government to a great extent has revitalised the deep-rooted aim of the Indian policy to Diaspora envisaged by the first BJP government, which can be loosely defined as "to realise diaspora investment-driven strategies with inculcations of an extra-territorial political re-imagining of Indian national membership". Surely one can say that the proposed policy measures of BJP and PM Naredra Modi himself moved further towards constituting the Diaspora as citizens of India rather than members with a limited set of rights. In his closing remarks in the Wembley speech in London in 2014, he said: “Our relations are based on the colour of our blood, not on the colour of our passports. All rights that Narendra Modi has, you also do”.

The total number of Indians in Africa can reach up to 3.0 million. According to the Forbes magazine in 2013, three businessmen of India-origin were among the 50 richest people in Africa. From the Indian point of view, the Diaspora network in Africa represents an important advantage, which the Indian public and private sectors can leverage off in stimulating trade and investment. These deep-rooted Indian communities are fully integrated and are often interested in offering their business expertise and local networks to Indian investment projects. The Diaspora can offer the Indian investors local knowledge, contacts and access to personnel who are beneficial to Indian commercial interests and could influence local governments to adopt more favourable policy towards India.

Migration and the various backgrounds resulted in the development of two main groups of Indians known as ‘old Diaspora’ and ‘new Diaspora”. The main distinction between them is the level of engagement in their mother country. ‘Old Diaspora’ consists of descendants mostly workers and traders, who are now four-five generations of Indians living in Africa, and often losing their connections with India and officially called People of Indian origin (PIOs). The ‘new Diaspora’ comprises the skilled Indian emigrants who have been coming to African countries since the 1970s to work as IT professionals, teachers, doctors, lawyers, and in the private business sector. This group includes mostly Indian citizens who maintain regular contact with their relatives in India and are officially referred to as Non-Resident Indians (NRI).

The use of these sensibilities is likely to be a beneficial factor for developing ties between India and South African Diaspora. The high-ranked Durban official for many years and a South African Indian, Logie Naidu, once articulated: “It’s important, I maintain links to India to assist the South African community [to] provide a platform of mutual benefit to both countries. I use my identity, origins and position to work on the links between India and South Africa… and extract benefits for South Africa.”

The success of these articulatory practices however depends mostly on the ability of its protagonists to realise outcomes that allow South African Indians to stake a claim to being an integral component of the heterogeneities of South Africa’s history and future. It is not an easy task. Having settled in Africa for generations, African Indians relate more to their ‘African’ identity than their ‘Indian’ identity. This is bound to complicate the Indian Government’s efforts to propagate Diaspora diplomacy in Africa and the benefits of India-oriented strategies. As most African Indians are PIOs, not NRI, it seems rational for India to pursue policies that aim at influencing the Diaspora mainly by producing self-disciplined communities that can act in accordance with their own interests. So, celebrating emigrants, attracting their resources through special privileges and investment friendly environments appears to be an efficient strategy to create a Diaspora self regulated in the sense that it is spontaneously inclined to support India and Africa’s economic development.

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