India’s Development Diplomacy & Soft Power in Africa
Edited by KENNETH KING and MEERA VENKATACHALAM
Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions for the African Griot! Can you please begin by giving a brief overview of your new book India’s Development Diplomacy & Soft Power in Africa?
Our book focusses on two themes.
First, we seek to understand how Africa is imagined by Indian actors – diplomats, civil society, ordinary citizens, and policy players. We argue that the idea of Africa is changing in the Indian imagination, as India seeks to refashion itself as a major global power and extend its influence beyond its neighbourhood in South Asia. Previously, India’s imagined its relations with Africa as a partnership of equals, as both were postcolonial geographies which inherited particular disadvantages in the liberal capitalist order immediately after independence. This conception has now changed, because the Indian political elite believe that the nation has a special role to play in the world after the successes of economic neo-liberalisation; and against the backdrop of the rise of the political right in India.
Second, we look at how Indian actors deploy their soft power in Africa. We show through the book that soft power is not necessarily deployed only by state actors, but a number of non-state actors, like the diaspora and some private sector players, at the behest of the state or independently. Indian soft power encompasses several modalities – from cultural influences of Bollywood; to educational and health diplomacy, and the initiatives of the diaspora. State actors are increasingly seeking to incorporate elements into cultural diplomacy from what they consider to be ancient Indic traditional wisdom to signify Indian exceptionalism – which for them is the nation’s unique ability to exist as a powerhouse of frugal scientific innovation and as a continuation of an ancient civilization. We also explore the controversies associated with the symbolism of Gandhi in Africa – which has long been deployed by Indian actors to signify Indian values, the nation’s postcolonial identity, and a sense of southern solidarity with Africa.
By interrogating the experiences and reactions of African users of India’s soft power, we seek to understand how cultural and social relations between Indians and Africans are constituted through a myriad of encounters.
In what forms of soft power has India particularly excelled and how has the nation benefitted as a result?
As hinted at above, Indian cinema has been popular across Africa for decades. Equally, access to its many universities by African students has been treasured, and particularly when there were so few universities in Africa itself in the early postcolonial era. More recently ‘medical tourism’ has also become popular and has taken advantage of India’s many private medical facilities. India’s longstanding expertise in science has been influential, and especially its comparative advantage in information technology. Many initiatives in advanced information technology have been supported by India in Africa, from Mauritius to Ghana. Most notably in India’s Pan-African e-Network and its continuation scheme. India’s artisanal skills in its diasporas in Africa were imitated by African entrepreneurs and influenced the development of microenterprise as well as foods and tools.
Is it directed at specific regions or populations in Africa?
Previously, India had thriving relations with only a few countries in Africa. Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and South Africa have large communities of Indian origin, and therefore featured more prominently in the Indian political imagination. As it did Ghana and some other Anglophone countries soon after independence, through their participation in multilateral forums such as the Non-Aligned Movement.
Today, we see an Indian presence all over Africa. There is an old and new diaspora: the former is at least two centuries old, while the latter mushroomed in the last few decades.
State actors in India are now aware that they have a presence all over the continent, and not just in their traditional spheres of influence. For instance, Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) programme runs courses in French, Spanish and Portuguese for non-Anglophone Africans.
Also, the best-known elements of India’s soft power – such as Bollywood – are not officially part of the nation’s repertoire of cultural diplomacy. Other aspects of India’s soft power, such as small-scale enterprises, are not part of a pre-meditated strategy, but the result of transregional contact between Indians and Africans for centuries, facilitated by well-established trade roots and migratory movements.
How have these forms of soft power changed in recent years, what are the most obvious examples?
The rise of the Hindu political right has altered the way India understands itself and its civilizational inheritance. There is a reinvigorated push to internationalise Yoga and traditional Indian medical systems, as one of India’s unique civilizational contributions to the world. For instance, the AYUSH, initiated by Prime Minister Modi, which seeks to promote world-wide alternative medical systems of India, has opened a branch in Ghana in 2021 and has run promotions in Senegal.
Where does India place in any ranking of soft power exponents in Africa?
A survey conducted by Afrobarometer in several African countries in 2016 indicated that the Indian development model was the least preferred with only 2 per cent of respondents seeing it as the best one. India stood behind the USA (30 per cent); China (24 per cent); former colonial powers (13 per cent); and South Africa (11 per cent). In fact, 5 per cent of respondents even suggested that their own country’s model was better than that of India.
But in 2010s, the Indian model of development, often referred to as the ‘Mumbai consensus’, attracted a great deal of attention in international policy circles. The Mumbai consensus was unlike the ‘Beijing consensus’, where an authoritarian state government and an export-led economy are features, or the ‘Washington consensus’ which is focussed on free-trade and neoliberal restructuring of domestic institutions. Rather, the Indian model of development focussed on people-centric approaches to development, by aiming to increase domestic consumption and widen the indigenous ‘middle class’, and was embedded within a decentralising democratic developmental state. Despite its many shortcomings, there was a great deal of interest in the ‘Mumbai consensus’ from African policy makers, for the alternative developmental path it could offer other southern nations.
In what ways do you think Africans have benefitted from India’s recent influence?
Tens of thousands of African students have accessed higher education in India’s relatively low-cost colleges and universities. Many of these have been self-funded. The vast majority of them have taken advantage of India’s long-term government scholarship schemes as well as the many different opportunities offered for short-term training, both civilian and military, through Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation programme. Though the Covid-19 pandemic has temporarily discouraged face-to-face study in India, creative on-line alternatives have sought to compensate. Historically, large numbers of government scholarships and training awards have been pledged through the series of India-Africa Forum Summits (IAFSs); the next of these is expected to take place in 2024.
Where do you see Africa fitting into India’s long-term geopolitical goals?
India has long sought the support of African countries, for its long-standing agenda to see multilateral institutions reformed, and in the hope of securing a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Over the last two decades in particular, India has become concerned at China’s influence on the continent – the relationship between China and India has often been acrimonious, from the moment of the Dalai Lama’s escape to India in 1959, and more recently, because of increasing Chinese militarisation in South Asia, and its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) across the world, including Africa. The last few decades, after economic liberalisation in the 1990s, have seen Indian private sector players seek to expand their footprint in Africa. The Indian government remains committed to capacity-building and exchanges with African nations, in areas of defence, counter-terrorism, agriculture and food security, health, education and skills development – this builds on India’s longstanding conviction that capacity building is at the very heart of its outreach to Africa.
How were your contributors chosen?
This book originated out of two panels, organised by Kenneth and Meera, at the European Conference on African Studies in Edinburgh in June 2019. Our contributors are from India, Tanzania, the USA, UK and Canada. We sought to include scholars who work on cultural and social relations between India and Africa, as there is an extensive body of scholarship about India’s economic footprint and political interests in Africa. Our contributors come from a number of disciplines – from Political Science, Anthropology, Sociology, History and Comparative Education.
What do you both have planned next?
Kenneth is working in two new areas. First, through the British Academy, he is examining the criticism and closure of some of China’s Confucius Institutes, particularly because of Trump’s ‘China War’; there are about sixty such institutes in Africa, but none has so far closed. Second, he is exploring editing a book that looks at the origins and lineages of individual scholars’ research or policy themes, whether derived from particular books, teachers or enabling environments.
Meera is working on a project funded by the Research Council of Norway, with collaborators from the University of Oslo and Malawi. This project is entitled ‘India’s Footprint in Africa: South-South Cooperation and the Politics of Gifts and Reciprocity’. It is focussed on India’s capacity building initiatives with African nations in the health and information technology sectors.
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KENNETH KING is Professor Emeritus at the University of Edinburgh, and former Director of its Centre of African Studies, and author of China’s Aid and Soft Power in Africa (2013). MEERA VENKATACHALAM is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for African Studies at the University of Mumbai, and co-editor of India-Africa Partnerships for Food Security and Capacity Building: South-South Cooperation (2021).