Modi knew that on this continent he had some catching up to do. China has been there for years spreading its largess far and wide, building roads, bridges, airports and palaces for grateful presidents and potentates. As an example, on the day Modi arrived the Kenyan Government announced some of its brightest young public servants had been selected for training in Beijing.
But if India is going to get an increased foothold on the continent, there is probably no better time. China’s economy has slowed; India’s continues to race ahead. As a result India is now in the best position in years to offer aid, loans and other investment forms as China pauses to sort itself out at home.
Modi can offer personnel equipped to run Africa’s mines and refineries while the historical ties that bind India with Africa were emphasised and revitalised at a time when the attitude of some imported Chinese workers and managers has been likened to that of old-style colonialists.
Modi made a dramatic point during his visit to South Africa when he visited the railway station at Pietermaritzburg where in 1893 the young Gandhi was thrown off the train for refusing to travel in the third class compartment designated for coloureds He stressed this was the symbolic beginning of India’s struggle against colonialism in a country that has had its own long and often violent battles for freedom.
Symbolism aside, there are very pragmatic reasons why New Delhi needs to build a special relationship with African nations. As India’s economy booms, its need for raw materials increases. Africa’s energy assets are among the cheapest in the world — and growing ever cheaper as international benchmark prices for oil and natural gas decline.
There has never been a better time to lock in favourable contracts that will bring some relief to nations like Nigeria and Mozambique, while giving Indian industry certainty for the long term.
India has imported oil from Nigeria, Angola and Egypt and coal from South Africa for years, but in the overall scheme of things it has been a bit player in Africa. Now global circumstances have turned dramatically in its favour.
While eulogising his country’s seven per cent and accelerating growth rate, the plan to create 500 million new jobs and its ambitious infrastructure development plans, the Indian Prime Minister also repeatedly used the acronym HOPE during his speeches, signifying harmony, optimism, potential and energy, striking a chord on a continent where hope is often in short supply.