Kampala, July 25: Prime Minister Narendra Modi's knack of identifying unusual foreign destinations for state visits might seem puzzling to many, but he certainly picks them up for a reason. His latest tour of Rwanda and Uganda in central-eastern Africa is no exception either.
This is the third time that Modi is visiting a cluster of nations in Africa. In March 2015, he paid visits to Seychelles and Mauritius. Then in July 2016, he visited Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya - all bordering the Indian Ocean, making evident New Delhi's focus on the continent which has increasingly become an arena of great power diplomacy of the 21st century.
Two years after, he is visiting Rwanda, Uganda and South Africa - ties with which have a potential significance for India.
In between, African leaders have also come to India on occasions like India-Africa Forum Summit in October 2015 or the International Solar Alliance summit in March this year. In January 2017, Rwandan President Paul Kagame participated in the Vibrant Gujarat Summit. The goal of all these meetings - bilateral or multilateral - has been to strengthen India's connection with Africa.
The two-faced strategy of Modi's Africa visits
Modi's Africa trips have two purposes and they are interlinked for mutual benefit.
On one hand, through these visits, Modi tries to put up a counter-mechanism against China in the neighbourhood, especially in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) where Beijing has slowly but surely spread its strategic and diplomatic clouts. It is no coincidence that Modi picked all his destinations that bordered the Indian Ocean in 2016 to convey a message across to the Chinese. Less than halfway into his term, Modi was then more in a mood to compete with China, unlike the situation post Doklam and the start of the trade war by the US against almost the entire world.
But strategically countering China couldn't be successful if India did not have a follow-up plan to get closer with the African nations themselves at the bilateral level. China has made its place strong in the continent by extending help and cooperation to the countries there that are rich in resources but poor in economic strength. Modi thus engaged in developing an informal touch with the African states in turn to get India as closer to China in African diplomacy.
Giving that informal touch to Africa relationships
In Mozambique, Modi thus practised 'dal diplomacy' to not only tame the inflation at home but also use the opportunity to inch closer to tapping its vast resources.
Similarly, in Tanzania, Modi played drum with its president who is known for his zeal for cleanliness and crusade against corruption besides meeting the 'solar mamas' (rural women solar engineers).
In Kenya, Modi reached out to a strong Indian diaspora, calling it "Mini Hindustan". In South Africa, Modi had the added incentive to convince its leadership to back its bid for a membership of the prestigious Nuclear Suppliers' Group, something the Chinese have opposed throughout.
Modi in Rwanda and Uganda
In 2018, Modi closely followed Chinese President Xi Jinping to Rwanda - a country which was once a victim of genocide but has come up a long way today to evolve as one of Africa's fastest developing nations and can be grown as a major hub close to the Indian subcontinent which New Delhi can help grow to its strategic advantage.
Besides signing of the eight agreements in various fields of cooperation, Modi produced a special effect on the Rwandan soil by gifting 200 cows to its popular Girinka (one cow per poor family) programme whereby cow is used a means to promote social harmony.
In Uganda, Modi said the country impresses him every time he went there and invoked Mahatma Gandhi besides unveiling a bust of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel during his visit. Uganda has a very old connection with India and despite the suppression by its former dictator Idi Amin who had targeted ethnic Indians there, the country's India links have survived.
Economically, Uganda is one country with which India shares a more voluminous trade than China (Ugandan exports to India in 2017 were worth $43.69 million while with China, it was worth $30.23 million around the same time) and it has been made possible because of historically robust economic ties between the two countries. The people-to-people contact between India and Uganda is also strong, making the foundation perfect for New Delhi to maintain a lead over rival China in at least one African country.
India's Africa ties have potential to deliver because of a number of factors. They share a common colonial history; have an urge to reform the North-dominated international system which is still in vogue and menace of terrorism which threatens both. The biggest challenge to India's Africa policy is the growing clout of the Chinese in that continent but India still has a lot of soft power appeal to make its own space amid the competition from China's hard power.