India should stick to business in Africa
Indians are emotional people. No one doubts that. What is bizarre is when emotion is injected into foreign policy, as India displayed recently in its newly proactive approach to Africa.
With its lumbering, elephantine pace, India is far behind China on trade links with the continent. The government woke up only recently to the fact that it needed Africa's minerals, oil and markets if it wished to sustain its 8 per cent per annum growth rates.
Last month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh belatedly made a six-day visit to Ethiopia and Tanzania to try to make good the vast gap between India's toehold and China's solid presence.
Over 2,000 Chinese companies operate in Africa, compared with about 250 from India. China's trade with Africa exceeds US$125 billion; India's stands at only US$46 billion. According to the London-based Chatham House think tank, China has 42 embassies across sub-Saharan Africa, double India's 21.
But rather than simply stating that India is interested in having a healthy business relationship with Africa, officials and business leaders have been clambering onto the moral high ground.
They have tried to differentiate their policy from that of China by talking loftily about how they intend to be humane and sincere, implying that the Chinese are rapacious and exploitative.
Great emphasis has been placed on how Indian companies intend to 'build capacity' among Africans whereas the Chinese prefer to employ Chinese workers on their projects.
In its editorial, the Hindustan Times wrote that India could make up for lost time in Africa by 'projecting itself as a more humane investor than its northern neighbour'.
And an Indian diplomat was quoted as saying that 'we are helping the Africans to learn how to fish. The Chinese are catching the fish and giving it to the Africans'.
What hogwash: a case of dressing up economic interest in the garb of love and kindness. It reeks of doublespeak and hypocrisy and posits that the Chinese are predators while Indians are altruistic.
Fortunately, it's unlikely that the Africans will be hoodwinked by such nonsense. African leaders know that the intense competition between the two countries for the continent's markets is great for Africa. They have indicated that they have no strong feelings for, or against, either country as long as what they do in Africa benefits the continent.
They are realists who, to borrow a Chinese saying, don't care about the colour of the cat as long as it catches mice.
If only Indians could be so straightforward.
Amrit Dhillon is a freelance writer in New Delhi