India’s Diplomatic Activism

3 mins read

Vivek Katju

India has been diplomatically active this month. There have been important incoming visits and External Affairs Minister (EAM) S Jaishankar has also traveled to Africa and, as I write these lines, the Ministry of External Affairs has announced that he is scheduled to go on a tour of Guyana, Panama, Columbia and the Dominican Republic from April 21 to April 29. In addition, traditional dialogue processes at diplomatic levels with some countries, including with Ukraine, have taken place in India since the beginning of the month. Besides, events concerning the country’s G20 rotational Presidency have also been held. Naturally, these diplomatic engagements must not be merely to show activity but to pursue and achieve national interest in the political, security and economic spheres.

As India wishes to once again reiterate its deep connections with the ‘Global South’ which, in earlier times, was called the developing world, it is essential for the political head of the country’s diplomatic establishment to personally visit countries in Africa and in South and Central America. It is good that EAM is doing that now instead of only focusing on developed and industrialized countries. Naturally, the covid-19 pandemic and diplomatic pre-occupations flowing from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine interrupted the flow of his travel. Also, while virtual interactions have and will increasingly occur in international diplomacy there is no substitute for personal visits.

The African countries Jaishankar chose to visit from April 10-15 were Uganda and Mozambique. India has long ties with both going back to the period of decolonisation and the struggle against apartheid. Earlier, during the colonial period, Indian communities settled and, in some cases, flourished in many African colonies. In Uganda the Indian community suffered greatly when Idi Amin unleashed a programme of ‘terror’ against it in the early 1970s. He confiscated the wealth of many persons of Indian origin and many of them went to Britain to begin a new life. This was also a time when many persons of Indian origin living in other East African countries such as Kenya and Tanzania also migrated to Britain. The descendants of some of them have made their mark in Britain’s public life. Indeed, the most prominent example of such a person is Rishi Sunak, the current Prime Minister of Britain, whose parents were raised in East Africa and went to Britain from there. But I have digressed.

Apart from holding political level discussions with his Ugandan counterpart Jege Odongo and other leaders of the country Jaishankar, according to a MEA statement, inaugurated the ‘the first overseas campus of the National Forensic Sciences University (NFSU) in Jinga’. He also co-launched an Export-Import Bank of India (EXIM) funded project which would supply drinking water to five lakh people in twenty districts of Uganda. These ventures are part of India’s traditional commitment to assist other developing countries to the best of its capacity. It would be useful to focus on the Uganda visit in the context of Indian assistance to countries of the Global South especially as India has wished to be its voice during its G20 Presidency. There are many aspects to this aspiration but one of them is to demonstrate its intent through the extent and nature of its assistance programmes.

Indian assistance has been through building infrastructure projects and human capacity building programmes. The latter were implemented either through the deputation of Indian experts or sponsoring students and officials from developing countries to study in Indian educational institutions or attending specifically designed courses for them. It would not be wrong to state that India was more successful in human capacity building than in infrastructure projects. This is even though in most cases such projects were finally completed but inevitably in many of them there were great delays. The notable exception was the construction of the Parliament Building in Kabul though now with the Taliban in power in Afghanistan it is not clear how the clerical regime will use the structure.

An essential purpose of all assistance programmes is to earn goodwill of the governments and peoples of the concerned countries. This is a competitive field for many countries extend aid for the same purpose. A major competitor of India in Africa is China. It focused on giving aid by constructing large infrastructure projects such as imposing office buildings, stadiums, power projects etc. These were more speedily completed and were grander in scale than Indian infrastructure projects. Where China simply could not match India was in human capacity building.

Over the past two to three decades it has become more and more difficult to send Indian experts to teach or assist in human development in the countries of the Global South. India has tried to therefore use technology to fulfill this gap. It has undertaken tele-medicine and tele-education projects. The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a great spurt in the use of virtual technologies for a variety of functions including in the field of education. What India has to now think is of innovative ways to assist the Global South in human capacity building. One way of doing so is to build a virtual university which will impart courses in a variety of subjects which countries in Africa and other parts of the Global South need and want. This will require an interactive process with the Global South and flexible thinking on the part of MEA and the line ministries and institutions but it will yield rich dividends in building influence in the Global South. And, it will show that India is willing to act in addition to merely voicing the Global South’s concerns.

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