An African USINPAC?

Author:Tripti Lahiri


As the United States and India have drawn closer in recent years, political observers have given at least some of the credit to one group: Indian immigrants settled in the United States, who have set up lobbies like the U.S.-India Political Action Committee.


Today, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is in Addis Ababa, at the second Africa-India Forum Summit, laying out his vision for the future of India-Africa ties, which have always been couched in the language of solidarity but in recent years have focused mainly on energy trade. Can Indians in Africa, like those in the U.S., play a role in fostering ties between their adoptive nations and India?

That may be a trickier proposition.

Indians have had a far longer history in Africa than in the United States—emigrating there both under duress, as indentured labor with the British, and freely, as did many Gujarati traders. But analysts note that India has in the past been reluctant to reach out to Indian-origin populations in African countries.

“For a very long time the Indian government left the Indian community in Africa to their own devices. [First Prime Minister Jawaharlal] Nehru used to say they should settle in their adoptive homes,” said Ruchita Beri, senior Africa analyst at the New Delhi-based think tank, the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses. “For a very long time those people also didn’t want to engage India.”

There were many reasons for that—in some cases Indians in Africa didn’t want to be seen as having divided loyalties or perhaps didn’t feel a kinship with India. In other cases, Indian communities, insular at best, or aligned with white interests at worst, weren’t always ideal ambassadors for India.

A 2002 Indian government report on the diaspora blamed frictions between Indian and black Africans on local policy in some countries, such as South African apartheid, which played non-white groups against one another. But the report also criticized Indian attitudes, noting that there’s a “social aloofness and cultural superiority, even arrogance, that some Indians apparently still find it difficult to overcome.”

Ms. Beri said that even as India has begun trying to make more use of its 20 million-strong diaspora across the world—one recent initiative is the annual diaspora conference the government organizes—she doubted that that could work in Africa.

“People of Indian origin [in Africa] are a totally different ball game because they settled there centuries back,” she said. “They are South Africans or Tanzanians or Ghanians. They have a totally different kind of identity now.”

She said that in Africa, the Indian government probably shouldn’t focus too much on its diaspora as it tries to increase its $45 billion trade with the continent and catch up with China, whose trade with the continent stands at around $100 billion. And in fact some of India’s fastest-growing economic ties are with countries like Ethiopia, which has a very small Indian community.

But Alex Vines, an analyst with the London-based Chatham House international affairs think-tank, said that in some countries Indian-origin Africans could play a bridging role.

“There’s tremendous variability,” said Mr. Vines, who wrote a paper in December on India-African ties.  “Some of the nationals of Indian origin in some east African countries are important interlocutors while others have decided that it’s not in their interest to interface with India. In East Africa there are issues there that you don’t really see elsewhere in Africa related to the perception of the Indian diaspora.”

The Indian community in East Africa has had a particularly checkered career, reaping ill will when many opted for British citizenship rather than Kenyan or Ugandan citizenship when those countries gained independence. The lowest point came when Idi Amin, then leader of Uganda, expelled residents of Asian origin in the 1970s. As a result of that history, East African Indians could be reluctant to be seen to be lobbying for India.

But the director of the South African Association for International Affairs, a think-tank based in Johannesburg’s University of Witwatersrand, said that more than anything else, the very longevity of many of Africa’s Indian-origin citizens, some of whom are now sixth generation, could make it hard for them to lobby or promote trade ties in the same way as the Indian-Americans, many of whom are just a generation or two old.

“I know that I probably would fail dismally to establish a business in Greece,” said Elizabeth Sidiropoulos. “That is an environment that is foreign to me.”

But she said that more recent arrivals from China and India, who are coming as a result of new investments, were now beginning to create a corps of people equally familiar with Asia and Africa, and they could take on a stronger role in fostering relations.

“Indian investment in South Africa has been growing and increasing. What that brings into the mix is a bit more like what you have in the U.S.: people born in India but who have left to seek education and new opportunities,” she said. “And that’s a different kind of dynamic.”

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