In a speech last October, Narendra Modi argued: “I believe a strong economy is the driver of an effective foreign policy … we have to put our own house in order so that the world is attracted to us.” The need for a robust economy is paramount for Modi’s India. The economy will drive Modi’s government in domestic and foreign agenda, and New Delhi’s ambitions on the African continent reflects this. India’s interests are likely to be bound up more and more with the growth of African economies. It is likely that the language of a ‘Rejuvenated India’ will become enmeshed with the grand and convenient narrative of a “Rising Africa.”
India’s engagement in Africa since Independence has been chaotic and incoherent, with a multitude of actors and sectors engaging in Africa continent. The official Indian rhetoric, however, has treated Africa as a monolith, discounting a continent with heterogeneous political economies and varying levels of economic and social development. While India made had long historical linkages with the continent, trade in the postcolonial era lagged behind. Till the year 2000, the volume of trade was a meagre $3 billion. In the last decade, however, there was a dramatic increase in trade between India and Africa, leaving it at $70 billion currently; trade is projected to reach $90 billion by 2015. Despite the multifold increase, India is still playing catch up to the $200 billion volume of China-Africa trade. The reason for this disparity? While Chinese inroads in Africa are state driven, Indian in roads are private sector driven.
All of that is set to change. Modi’s Election manifesto states, “BJP realizes the need to focus on generation and distribution of power as a national security issue, so that the growth is not negatively impacted due to supply issues in the energy sector”, squarely placing energy security under national security. If Modi is to achieve his goal of development, then energy security becomes of paramount importance. And where commerce heads, the military will follow.
In the past decade, India’s strategic presence in the continent has increased; under Modi’s reign these trends will solidify. In 2006, Raja C. Mohan argued that India should “reclaim its standing in the near abroad in parts of Africa.” The Indian Navy has cautiously and steadily extended its presence to cover most of the island states off the eastern coast of Africa since a 2003 bilateral defence assistance accord first authorized it to patrol the exclusive economic zone of Mauritius. This was done under the Prime Ministership of BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Subsequent deals have led to patrols of the territorial waters of the Seychelles and regular presence off the coast of Mozambique. In 2007, India established its first listening post in northern Madagascar, setting up a surveillance station to track shipping in the western Indian Ocean. Attacks on several Indian merchant ships by Somali pirates in 2008 gave an added impetus to keep at least one Indian Navy warship on station in the Gulf of Aden at all times since October 2008.
India’s Economic and Energy Policy will make it imperative to secure the African coast, just as China secures its interest through the “String of Pearls” strategy. Alioune Ndiaye, in “L’Afrique dans la politique étrangère indienne: Les nouvelles ambitions africaines de New Delhi”, calls this geographic regional strategy the “Varuna Triangle”. Here, India will have to contain China through long term strategic investment in African countries located along the Indian Ocean from the Horn of Africa to the Cape of Good Hope, including African island states of Seychelles, Mauritius and Madagascar. Through naval diplomacy, and the opening of listening posts, India is already aiming at securing its external trade and countering the presence of China in the region. Under Modi, Africa will not just be a continent where India endeavors to expand its economic footprint, but one where it will seek to build, protect and project its power.