Bottom up advantage

Why democracy in Africa is in India’s interests

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha, Mint‘s opinion page editor, has gotten himself into An Awkward Corner…by jumping in headlong into the blogosphere.

In today’s post Niranjan discusses reports of the increase in the number of Chinese nationals in Africa and the tensions this is causing in many countries. He points out that since Indian firms tend to hire local labour, “we could also be making more friends among ordinary Africans but relatively fewer friends in governments.”

That’s perhaps true.

As discussed in a previous post, democracy, entrepreneurship and free enterprise allows Indian citizens, businesses and institutions to engage Africa at decentralised, non-governmental, broad-based levels. In many cases this engagement proceeds regardless of government’s official engagement policies. For instance, Indian businesses (and the diaspora) were engaged in Africa for a long time. Indian foreign policy has begun to leverage this. But more can be done.

Given China’s investments in resource extraction, development assistance and “non-interference” in their internal affairs, Beijing will have relatively more friends in African capitals. So while the “Coddle Your Favourite Dictator” game goes on—and India can’t entirely refuse to play this game—India’s engagement pattern suggests that it stands to make relative gains under democratic governments than under autocratic regimes. So there is a case for Indian foreign policy to work towards building institutional democracies in Africa.

5 thoughts on “Bottom up advantage”

  1. Why can’t India “entirely refuse to play this game”?? Unintentionally if we make mistakes I can understand. But deliberately play nice with dictators?

    Are we so beholden to African natural resources that we must “work towards building institutional democracies”(!)

  2. >> So there is a case for Indian foreign policy to work towards building institutional democracies in Africa. >>

    You mean like the “institutional democracy” we have at home in India.

    Indian firms in Africa do not hire local labour either (atleast in Nigeria / Zambia). Stepping back a bit, Indians are mostly involved in trading (large and small) – which does not require extensive labour. They also have extensive contacts with the government officials at least the customs variety. Fundamentally, the Indian involvement with Africa is centered around immigration and expatriate work opportunities. This is why you wont find many Indians in lesser developed countries like Sudan, Gabon, Angola, Ethiopia. These are places where the Chinese have significant presence. The Chinese are involved in large infra projects and mining which is a new game unfamiliar to the indian diaspora in Africa.

  3. Pramod,

    Yes. Sometimes there’s no other choice than to hold your nose and do business with the dictators. You don’t have to like them, or like it, but the mere fact that they are dictators is not a concern. Similarly, the mere fact that they are democracies shouldn’t endear us to them…and so on.

    Are we so beholden to African natural resources? Maybe, maybe not. (For instance Niger has uranium and is not a member of the NSG). But it’s not merely about natural resources; it’s about a broader economic relationship. Yes, I think the broader economic relationship matters enough to work towards building institutional democracies there.

  4. RC,

    Yes, it’ll be good if they can have one like what we have at home in India.

    It’s all relative. Even what you mention about hiring local labour. According to Broadman’s book, the broad pattern is one where India engages local labour. But Africa is not one country, and the number of Indian firms engaged there is large, so there are bound to be variations. The point of my post is that our foreign policy ought to play to India’s realities and strengths, rather than try to out-China China.

  5. Nitin:

    Actually, it has to be on a case to case basis for each African nation. With dictatorial regimes, India is in direct competition with China. As our experience has clearly shown over the last four years, we are not in a position to take the Chinese on — financial muscle, P-5 seat are huge advantages that the Chinese possess.

    On the other hand, with democracies, there is always a fear of the backlash against neo-colonisers that democratic leaders have to be wary of. Thus, it is a nuanced game, where India has done well recently.

    What we need to resist is the portrayal of India and China, in the same breath, as neo-colonisers, that western media so promptly depicts and a gullible Indian media then tom-toms it. India has to and must chart its own distinct path, away from the Chinese model. To that extent, I agree with a lot of pieces you have published in Pragati over the last year. That is the right way to look at Indian interests in Africa.

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