Run the humane race instead

Written by YRK Reddy | Updated: Apr 13 2008, 04:32am hrs
It was the third week of May 2007 at the Johannesburg Park Hyatts breakfast lounge on the executive floor. A little away from my table, I saw an impressively dressed Indian who did not seem to be enjoying his breakfast. He was asking two obedient Indians who stood close by some searching questions on a few media related issues, and seemed disappointed about something. It must be Anand Sharma, the minister, I reckoned. Engaging Africa must indeed be proving a difficult task, I surmised. This was around the time that China was occupying a dominant share of media and policymaker mind space. In November 2006, it had hosted a mighty China-Africa summit with leaders from 45 countries, and signed up over 2,500 business deals. China followed this up by hosting African Development Banks annual meeting at Shanghai in May 2007, which was a huge success. India was hardly visible at Shanghai, even though a few African leaders took pains to mention China and India in the same breath and even sought to draw lessons from Indias entrepreneurial success.

In that context, there is no doubt about the success of the just concluded India-Africa summit. As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had clarified, India may not be in competition with China for investing in Africa. But India will not ignore a continent that is growing fast, with which both China and India have exponentially growing trade flows, and which has strategic resources such as oil and uranium.

If some Asians believe that the 21st century is theirs, there are many in Africa who believe that a few decades hence, the century would be African. The continent that has been in the news for all wrong reasonsabject poverty, pandemic diseases, ethnic conflicts, illiteracyis also making important strides in patches, overcoming these challenges and showcasing impressive economic results of good governance. A pan-African identity has also taken shape, with platforms such as the New Partnership for African Development. Notions of interdependence and cohesionthe idea of ubuntuhave gained currency, too. Despite Africa being the motherland of the human race, Africans sense a certain exclusion they intend to challenge.

The slew of measures announced by the PM during the summit is commendable. African leaders have taken note. And they come at a time when Indian industry is also warming up to investments and partnerships in Africa. However, one wonders whether the pace is adequate and the agenda comprehensive enough, given the speed at which China is closing in. This, despite some criticism (traced by some to Western orchestration) of Chinese aggressiveness that is stifling African industry and aggravating political problems in some countries. A Chinese academic had raised an interesting issue at a conference that I had addressed in Cape Town some months agowhy do some African leaders and media single out Chinese companies, even as Indian and Malaysian companies are treated differently Why is China being tarnished unduly and India being promoted

The question also reveals a discernible positive bias for India in Africa at this point. Despite the stereotyping of Asian behaviour in Africa, respect for India arises mainly from the appreciation for Indian democracy and its inclusive policies, the competence of Indian professionals and the entrepreneurial spirit in India that has created a massive middle-class. Does India have the ability to capitalise upon and nurture this premium it enjoys currently vis--vis China

Many people in Africa cherish the Indian connection to their struggles against colonialism and racism, but they cannot reconcile the humane and truly internationalist Gandhian approach with the narrow exclusiveness displayed by some Asians nowadays. It may be important to also promote greater respect for their tradition, culture, identity and indomitable spirit, along with trade and finance.