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India eyes Africa in its quest for superpower status

With Africa’s strategic importance rising, India has leveraged the global trust deficit to become a trusted interlocutor.

India is rapidly forging an important role in the new global order as a bridge between the global north and south. Leveraging its economic muscle and newfound political clout as the self-appointed voice of the south, India has nimbly straddled multiple, divergent interests and fora.

In keeping with a ‘multi-alignment’ strategy, India has achieved several diplomatic victories, such as the African Union’s (AU) inclusion in the G20 in September 2023. Central to this success has been the ability to empathise with divergent viewpoints while maintaining strategic autonomy.

For the West, India is an important bulwark against the China-Russia axis. The so-called Dragon-Bear alliance has become the primary concern to Western policymakers, given Beijing and Moscow’s desire to disrupt the global liberal order. In this context, India’s strategic importance has been elevated. It is the world’s largest democracy, an important ally in counter-terrorism, a key economic trade partner of the West, and distrustful of China.

The fact that India shares assessments of the threats from an assertive China makes it a compelling ally for Western governments. This is evidenced by its inclusion in the Quad ­– a diplomatic and security partnership between Australia, India, Japan and the United States, structured to deter Chinese aggression. With India set to become the world’s third largest economy by 2027, its rising economic stock gives the country additional gravitas in international affairs.

However, the relationship isn’t without friction. The Ukraine war exposed significant divergences in world views. India refrained from publicly condemning Russia’s invasion, refused to participate in sanctions against Moscow and continued buying Russian energy and arms despite Western pressure. India was steadfast in its position, arguing it would do what was right for the country, rather than kowtow to Western interests.

This conviction has resonated in the global south, where countries struggle to assert their own agendas. Jakkie Cilliers, Head of African Futures and Innovation at the Institute for Security Studies, says there’s an understanding that: ‘Even though the global south is not united on most matters, its countries do cohere on one – a deepening frustration that the current rules-based system keeps them down and the West on top.’

India’s biggest masterstroke was its effort to ensure the AU’s inclusion in the G20

India’s recognition of this sentiment and the shifting global centre of gravity towards the developing world (evidenced by the recent BRICS+ expansion) has informed its positioning.

African countries have been impressed that India no longer allows the West to dictate its morality. Delhi sent an important message around strategic independence by controlling the narrative around the Ukraine war and pushing back against the ‘Western gaze’, which sought to impose Western priorities and values on the developing world.

Indeed, in this new multipolar world, India appears to be avoiding great-power competition entirely – instead forging its own, independent path based on its priorities. The pushback resonated with African countries tired of the West’s perceived double standards over matters relating to climate, debt, travel bans and the binary framing of the Ukraine war.

India’s biggest masterstroke was its effort to ensure the AU’s inclusion in the G20. This arduous process required months of canvassing through vehicles like the Voice of Global South Summit (to which all global south countries that weren’t G20 members were invited), which India held at the start of its G20 presidency. Its objective was to ‘provide a common platform to deliberate on the concerns, interests and priorities that affect the developing countries.’

India garnered huge credibility through these efforts because African leaders felt listened to and represented. As Vera Songwe wrote in the Financial Times, ‘India’s presidency of the G20 delivered one of the most significant shifts in global governance in a decade: representation for [1.4 billion] people at the world’s premier economic co-ordination body.’

Given the political and developmental symmetry between India and many African countries, New Delhi’s charm offensive starkly contrasts with the paternalism that the West is often criticised for in dealing with African states.

India’s rise as a global power will be inextricably linked to the success of its relationship with Africa

With Africa’s strategic importance rising – as countries on the continent emerge as key ‘swing states’ in the geopolitical tussle – India, with one foot in each of these worlds, has become a trusted interlocutor. And its pragmatic approach is allowing it to reap the rewards.

In addition to diplomatic heft, Delhi can leverage several comparative advantages for its African charm offensive.

For starters, trade. India and Africa command a relatively small share of global trade: 2.8% and 3% for India and Africa respectively. And despite an uptick in recent years, Indian products represent only 6.3% of Africa’s total imports compared to China’s 18.3%. Creating a free trade agreement therefore seems like an obvious next step.

According to the Financial Times, ‘the growth of the next 25 years will be green and it will be digital. And India and Africa, with their increasing incomes and population trends, could be significant markets.’ Such a move would also accelerate India’s dynamic private sector, which is adept at catering to diverse consumer preferences and delivering customised solutions to large populations.

Next, digital infrastructure. The so-called India Stack – a public digital highway that enables payments and biometric identification – has been a significant success in India. If replicated correctly, it could drastically improve governance, transparency and inclusion across Africa.

India offers a different development model to China – based on inclusion and transparency

Additionally, healthcare. India’s role as the ‘pharmacy of the world’ is well known, and its ability to deliver affordable and scalable solutions across Africa will help tackle a critical priority area for countries on the continent.

Fourth, India’s reliance on brown growth means that Africa has a critical role in supporting India’s growth story, mainly through clean and renewable energy sources. Africa is a cheap source of fuels and other minerals, and can serve as a ‘carbon sink’ through offsetting initiatives. Equally, India can provide the investment, infrastructure and technology to maximise brown growth while expediting the green transition.

Finally, India offers a different development model to China – based on inclusion and transparency. China’s investment in natural resources and infrastructure, and its military presence, gives it a major influence in Africa. But India’s dynamic private sector, focus on technology and pharmaceuticals, soft power approach and clear-eyed diplomatic strategy, offer a compelling counterweight, despite the relatively smaller scale of its activities.

India’s rise as a global power will be inextricably linked to the success of its relationship with Africa. India has skilfully recognised the global trust deficit and how it can be leveraged for its own aspirations.

Signs are positive that the India-Africa relationship is shifting from one based on historical factors to one based on contemporary realities. India consistently demonstrates a unique ability to ventilate the aspirations of developing nations on a global stage – but rhetoric must be matched with action. Building influence in Africa won’t be easy amid competition from other global powers.

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