Interview: Ambassador Rajiv Bhatia on India-Africa Engagements

Disclaimer: This interview is the product of Dr. Modi and Dr. Venkatachalam’s work and the IUKDPF does not necessarily endorse any of the views expressed in this interview.

Dr. Renu Modi, Professor and Director, Centre for African Studies, University of Mumbai and Dr Meera Venkatachalam, Post-Doctoral Researcher, Centre for African Studies, University of Mumbai interview Ambassador Rajiv Bhatia, India’s High Commissioner to Kenya (1998-2002) and to South Africa and Lesotho (2006-2009). This interview was conducted in collaboration with CAS, University of Mumbai and is part of Dr. Modi and Dr. Venkatachalam’s ongoing project on South-South Cooperation and SEWA.

Ambassador Rajiv Bhatia

Ambassador Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House. He is also a member of three CII bodies: International Trade Policy Council, Advisory Council and Africa Committee. He served as the Chair of FICCI’s Core Group of Experts on BIMSTEC and continues to head its Task Force on the Blue Economy. He is a founding member of the Kalinga International Foundation. As Director General of the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) from 2012-15, he played a key role in strengthening India’s Track-II research and outreach activities.

RM: You have had a very distinguished career as a diplomat for almost four decades. Can you tell us a little bit about your time as an Ambassador in Kenya and South Africa? What are the major changes that you have seen over the past years in India’s Africa diplomacy?

RB: I spent a little less than four decades in the Indian diplomatic service which gave me the chance to serve at nine foreign stations on four continents. During this period, I spent nearly equal time in Asia, Europe, North America and Africa. Sincerely speaking, the seven years I spent in Africa – four years as India’s High Commissioner to Kenya and three years as High Commissioner to South Africa and Lesotho – left a very deep impression on me. I felt at home in the African surroundings. After my retirement from the Indian Foreign Service in 2009, I have been actively involved in the work of India’s strategic community, contributing my knowledge and experience to the public domain through media, think tanks and lecture circuits.

With respect to the changes that I have seen, I think they have been very significant – whether you take the 1990s, 2008, or 2014 as the base years. I would say that changes began to take place after Dr. Manmohan Singh piloted the economic liberalisation drive. Since then, India began to think of Africa in economic terms. Certainly, 2008 was a seminal year, when India decided to adopt an institutionalized approach towards Africa, rather than only a bilateral or globalised approach, which had been prevalent until then. With respect to the third milestone i.e., 2014, I think that no government in recent decades has done as much for India-Africa relations as the present one. This is due to the very strong political push that comes from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Using these three baselines, we can say that the India Africa relationship has become really exciting for scholars to study.

RM: We see that India-Africa relations have gone from being characterized by South- South cooperation (SSC), to development cooperation, to one of economic diplomacy. What do you think have been the tangible results of these changes on the ground?

RB: Yes, I think there have been several changes. The first change has been in the economic compartment. At the beginning of the century, India’s trade with Africa was barely US$5 billion. In the past 20 years, it has increased to around US$ 65-70 billion, making India the third largest trading partner for Africa. This is a significant change. Similarly, there has been a remarkable rise in investment flows from India into Africa – with investments now touching US$ 70 billion. Apart from this, the investments India is making through the Lines of Credit (LoCs), also need to be noted. Despite delays in some projects, the large financial commitments made after each summit with Africa have changed the situation for the better. If we update this story, we could say that, in this unprecedentedly sad and difficult year of 2020, India could have easily forgotten Africa, but it did not do so. In fact, of the 150 countries around the world where India’s tools and expertise to fight the pandemic were sent, a large number of these were countries in Africa. This clearly underlines the potential of cooperation in the health and pharmaceutical sectors. Thus, these are two or three major features that can be cited as the real changes that have taken place on the ground.

MV: It is said that India has its own model of development. As a High Commissioner, what do you think defines and distinguishes our developmental approach from China and other countries? How would you say the Africans view us?

RB: I will divide this question into two parts. Firstly, objectively speaking, all countries dealing with Africa (especially India, China and the US) want more or less the same thing; namely economic benefits, political influence and a geopolitical role. The variation and difference lie in the mix of these motivations. Earlier on, the colonial powers wanted everything for themselves. In the 21st-century, China also seems to want most of it for themselves, by using Africa as a tool to expand its domination of the world. However, I would like to believe that other partner countries such as India are different. I think India’s approach is truly rooted in equality and mutual benefit. This does not mean that India does not want benefits through its engagements in Africa. But India is willing to provide reciprocal and equitable benefits to Africa. This is the major difference between India and other major partner countries in Africa. The second big difference is in the political system of governance. As a democracy, India does not impose its views and prescriptions on its African partners. China and other European powers cannot make the same claim about their approach on the continent. India knows that it has to listen to Africa more, when it comes to African issues.

RM: While serving as the High Commissions in Africa, how did you think India promoted its cultural diplomacy? What are the cultural symbols that India employs to convey its sense of Indianness?

RB: I served in Kenya in the late 90s (1998-2002) and was later served in South Africa from 2006 to 2009. Subsequently, I have been studying the continent for the past 11 years. The story of the three decades is quite clear. In Kenya, India’s main cultural exports (if I may use that word) have been empathy, shared heritage of our fight against imperialism, and values relating to Mahatma Gandhi. Second, with respect to the cultural aspect, the India-Africa relationship goes back to ancient times, and finally, we have our education and skills training initiatives on the continent (e.g., the ITEC programme etc.). This was India’s Africa diplomacy in the 1990s until the economic aspect came into the picture. In the subsequent decade, things began to change in South Africa and India joined the India, Brazil, and South Africa (IBSA) bandwagon. The Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) partnership was also formed around the same time. Therefore, the concept of India as an emerging economy or as an economy that stood between ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ economies began to seep in. By then, India’s economic reforms were a decade old and were beginning to show results. India really had taken off and the Indian economy was entering its boom period. An average growth rate of 8% was witnessed for almost a decade or more. It was a very exciting period indeed! Finally, in the third decade (which is the past decade), the vision of Dr, Manmohan Singh took shape and was later expanded and pursued zealously by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This took the India-Africa relationship to an altogether new scale. India emerged as one of the major external partners for the African continent. Africa saw India as one of its top partners. Although China was bigger in terms of resources; India was a known and a trusted ally. We were thus given sufficient significance and respect. This is how I’ve seen the journey of the India- Africa relationship over the past few decades.

MV: I would like to move on to the economic aspects of the India-Africa relationship. What would you say are the priority sectors for India’s development cooperation in Africa currently?

RB: The list is quite long, and every conference produces an elaborate plan of action which adds to this list. However, if I am asked to pinpoint three or four key sectors, I would definitely say that these are: agriculture, healthcare, infrastructure, education and skill building, as well as two new areas – digital collaboration and the Blue Economy (which is my personal favourite, given the importance of oceanic spaces for India and Africa). These four traditional segments, combined with a couple of non-traditional ones, should merit greater attention.

RM: While you served in South Africa and Kenya, what was India’s diplomacy in the health sectors? I understand that in Nairobi and Kenya, every small change in the formulation of the medicines India exports is met with a fee. Would you say that this is just a way to keep generics out? Is there a lot of lobbying by Western multinationals to make it difficult for Indian pharmaceutical generics to enter into these countries?

RB: It is already over a decade since I left South Africa, and two decades since I left Kenya. There is no doubt that in both these countries––as in most countries of the world––pharmaceutical companies do struggle to get through local regulatory bodies. It takes time to secure licenses etc., which puts most pharma companies off. South Africa and Kenya are both counted as successes for India’s pharmaceutical industry. Firstly, Indian medicines have a good name and brand recognition. They are generally seen as trustworthy, reliable and affordable. Most people are aware of India’s efforts to help Africa get over the HIV menace on the continent, at a very reasonable cost. Overall, I think the Indian pharmaceutical industry has a very strong hold in Africa. I would not worry too much about the minor complaints. My advice would be to focus more on the scope of expansion, which has been further highlighted by the ongoing pandemic.

RM: While you were in Africa, were there any Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) outreach activities by Indian companies that you can recall?

RB: I don’t specifically recall these activities, but I know that whenever we requested help for our cultural and arts promotion activities organized by the High Commission, Indian companies always came forward. In that sense, Indian companies in Africa are quite helpful – whether these are the local Indian companies or those which have invested in Africa, such as TATA etc. They are always in the front row and they put in all their efforts when it comes to helping the broad cause of advancing India-Kenya or India-South Africa relations.

RM: Has the Indian pharmaceutical industry’s engagement in Africa changed a lot in the last decade, especially since the implementation of the Pan Africa e-Network project (PAENP)? Was there a presence of the Indian health and wellness sector (like Ayurveda etc.) while you were serving in Kenya and South Africa?

RB: Yes, these sectors did have a presence in Africa, particularly during my time in South Africa. With respect to the Pan Africa e-Network project, it was first announced by the former President of India, the late A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, in 2004, and the first grant of US$ 100 million was made available in 2007.

Late Dr. A.P.J Abdul Kalam delivered inaugural special lecture to African nations from studio of Pan Africa e Network project, TCIL, headquarters, New Delhi on the 23rd of May 2012

This was the time that the project took off and was later developed into a bigger project with provisions for education, telemedicine, and VVIP communication. All three components were conceptualized and prepared by the Telecommunications Consultants India Limited (TCIL) during my time, but their expansion took place after I came back to India.

RM: Apart from these technical questions, I am also very interested in listening to any anecdotal incidences from your time in Africa. What would you say have been the highpoints and lowpoints of Indian diplomacy during your career in Kenya and South Africa?

RB: There are so many stories of Africa and we might take a very long time to get through all of them. I would like to expand on the impact of Indian Ayurveda, Yoga, Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy (AYUSH) in Africa, since you brought it up. Traditional healers play a very important role in the lives of Africans. These traditional systems of medicine have been part of African culture long before Indians came into the picture. Thus, it was clear to me that AYUSH should have a positive impact and form a good connection with the African population. However, while there is no doubt that there is a natural connection between Africans and Indians at the people-to-people level, I found that Africans sometimes feel that Indians tend to talk more and listen less. This is not very helpful to our friendship with them. There is a natural tendency on part of many Indians to think that they know more than Africans, which is an unfounded notion, in my opinion. My suggestion, especially to Indian business people who visit Africa, is to not to forcefully push their products or scout for markets to exploit. It would be wiser to listen to Africans and assure them that they will be given what they need.

MV: In general, what was your experience like, while serving in Kenya and South Africa in those exciting times?

RB: In Kenya, I witnessed the dry run of 9/11 attacks. The bombing of the American Embassy in Kenya took place during my time. The American Embassy in Dar es Salaam was also attacked around the same time by the same terrorist group that carried out the 9/11 attacks in the US. I remember these events very clearly and have also written about them elsewhere. There was complete mayhem and a lot of bloodshed. I vividly recall the blood-soaked face of the US Ambassador, Prudence Bushnell, whose photo appeared in the national and international dailies. The next day I visited Kenyan Trade Minister Joseph Kamotho in the hospital, who was also injured in the attack. I expected heightened security around him, but was surprised to see him alone with this wife. He was in a meeting with the US Ambassador when the bombing attack took place. This is quite a painful memory.

In South Africa, on the other hand, it was all quite exciting. We had very important visits by Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, when she was at the heyday of her power. The manner in which President Thabo Mbeki and Madam Mbeki connected with her, was quite significant. She also met with Nelson Mandela, the towering African figure, whom we always look up to. I also had the good fortune of meeting President Nelson Mandela once. Those were very special times indeed! However, around the same time, we also saw the beginning of the end. I was at that party convention when the sitting ANC president Mbeki lost the party presidency to Jacob Zuma, after which the transition followed. Kgalema Motlanthe became the acting president, and subsequently Jacob Zuma’s star began to rise. We had no inkling of how dark the next decade would be, but there were worries and concerns in many African quarters. These are just a few examples of how the African horizon seemed to me during my time there.

RM: Mahatma Gandhi has been revered and praised by many African personalities – from Kenneth Kaunda, to Nelson Mandela, to Leopold Senghor. What do you think has given rise to the recent revisionist conversations about Gandhi in South Africa, Ghana and Malawi?

RB: The world reveres and has deep admiration of Mahatma Gandhi, who was the father of our nation. I am deeply interested in Africa. So, I am not really troubled by these revisionist voices from the present generation that question Gandhi’s values, ideals and approach. I believe it is better to discuss Mahatma Gandhi in a frank, realistic and objective manner, rather than worshiping him on the one hand, and then violating much of what he stood for, on the other. Unfortunately, this is the hypocrisy we see often around us nowadays.

Mahatma Gandhi in his law office - Johannesburg, 1902 | South African  History Online
Mahatma Gandhi, Johannesburg, 1902;

To answer your question as to why there is this notion of revisionism about Mahatma Gandhi, I think this could be partly due to ignorance and partly due to biases created by people from different quarters. However, my research shows that these critics or revisionists are in a small minority. The vast majority of people in Africa accept the positive narrative which has been given to them by their leaders. As academics on Africa, we should take a note of this change, but there is no need to be over-excited by it.

MV: Both the African countries you served in have large Indian Diasporas. Most of these people have their origins in India, going as far back as 100 or 150 years. Can you elaborate a bit on the Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs)? Or the movement from India to Africa – who is actually moving, what kinds of jobs do they have, and where do they tend to settle in Kenya and South Africa?

RB: I can say that in both African countries, there are Indians who are long-term residents and descendants from previous generations of Indians. These populations have been there for a long time and are known as Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs). Large groups of Indians are very well settled not only in Nairobi, but also in other places like Mombasa and Kisumu. In the context of South Africa, specifically in Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town, there is a significant long-term resident community composed of African Indians. There is also an expanding expat community which is present in both countries. As the presence of India Inc has increased, it has attracted more professionals like bankers, doctors, engineers etc. from India. The MEA and embassies generally segregate these groups according to their passports. The first groups of permanent residents have African passports, whereas the other temporary residents have Indian passports. Although the Indian diaspora in Africa has been studied well by Indian academics, I still feel that perhaps due to a shortage of resources and lack of on-ground research in Africa, the story of Indians in Africa has not yet been fully explored and presented.

MV: In the last 10 years, especially after 2008, we have seen a more confident version of India on the world stage. India has also changed its relationship vis-a-vis its closest friends and foes. Is India looking to get more involved in various militaristic ventures with African countries to fight for common goals like antiterrorism etc.? Where do you think Africa fits into this reconfiguration of the Indian imagination?

RB: India has indeed become much more vocal and assertive in presenting its worldview and what it regards as its place in the world. This could be credited to our Prime Minister, but is also been very much articulated by others. The Indian economy grew at a ready rate initially and then began to stumble a bit. However, in 2020, although we suffered an economic setback, India kept its voice and role alive in the world through fairly robust policy initiatives.

Now, particularly in the context of a serious crisis in relations with China, the Indian worldview has been transformed. India is now much more security oriented. As to where Africa fits into India’s worldview today, I would say that in the past 14 months, India seems to give the impression that Africa is becoming a little less important. We recall the very first guiding principle that the Prime Minister spoke about, at the Ugandan parliament – ‘Africa is our top priority’. It is important to stress that the Prime Minister has a clear vision, but the developments during 2020 have cast a shadow on it. This needs to be rectified. As I remember, when the government was planning the events for 2020; we were all excited for it to be the year of the India Africa Forum Summit IV (IAFS IV). It was bad enough that the fourth summit was shifted from 3 to 5 years, but now it has been moved further by another year. We would be lucky if it takes place in 2021, as things are a bit uncertain now. Everybody is excited about India’s membership of the Security Council, the BRICS summit, and the G20 summit. It was in this context that some of us in Delhi had urged for the CII and EXIM Bank Conclave to take place in 2020, and were happy when it was successfully held virtually.

Whether India takes a low, medium or high interest in Africa, the fact of sharpening international competition in Africa is a fact of life. There are about a dozen countries, including China, that are actively engaged in improving their partnership with the continent. Therefore, while India is doing a lot, it needs to step up its cooperation programmes to be able to convince the world that it is in the top league of Africa’s partners. Further, Indian overseas partners are aware that without a close partnership with Africa, India’s global ambitions cannot be fulfilled. India faces competition not only from China but from other countries as well, although with some of these countries, it can forge trilateral cooperation. Above all, India’s Africa policy will essentially be shaped by India Inc., which has to trade and invest more in order to contribute to Africa’s growth. This is the path we advocate unreservedly.

MV: We have seen that the African Union, in its modus operandi, is not as united on its agendas. I wonder whether it would make sense to have several regional African policies as opposed to one master Africa policy? Would you say that would be more effective in terms of achieving more trade, investments and easier flow of people?

RB: Yes, I do agree with you in a way. We are perforce compelled to keep using the word ‘Africa’ as if it is a country, when we know very well that it is a continent composed of 54 diverse countries. I can offer two suggestions in this context. First, at the diplomatic level, we must understand that Africa is a continent full of inner fault lines and complexities. In order not to be caught in the vortex of those issues, India needs to know Africa better. Therefore, we need more Indian scholars to vigorously study the developments in Africa. India should also follow a policy that is politically neutral and which focuses essentially on socio-economic development. Second, the Africa strategy will have to run at three different levels; namely the continental level (which we are already trying to do with the African Union), the regional level (where there could be different regional policies or different approaches to diverse regions), and lastly at the bilateral level. This three-layered strategy has been in place since the first IAFS, but we need to remind people that this is the only way for us to better understand the India-Africa partnership and try to strengthen it further.

MV: If we were to communicate the importance of Africa to Indian audiences, how would we design that communication? In other words, how can we insert Africa into the Indian imaginary – perhaps drawing on certain cultural, historical similarities, and vision for the future, which would strike a chord with the Indian public, stakeholders and policymakers?

RB: I would say that strengthening our relationship with Africa is in India’s interest. I think that Indians have become very pragmatic, and so we must appeal to their sense of pragmatism. It is definitely in India’s interest to partner with Africa, because Africa is going to be a huge market and could help India with its energy concerns. Africa and India can also help each other in terms of food security. In fact, Africa looks up to India for its technology needs. Apart from these aspects, there is also the element of values – there is deep affinity, empathy and sharing of historical experiences between the two regions. Above all, it is the people-to-people connections that make this relationship as significant as it is. The India-Africa relationship is not about the governments or corporations only. We need to prioritise the Indian diaspora in Africa and also direct increased focus towards Africans in India. I am happy that in the recent years, no untoward incident seems to have taken place concerning the safety of African in India. This is wonderful. But in earlier years a few unfortunate incidents of attacks on Africans, had shaken our confidence. Therefore, we must be mindful of the people’s facet: if we are unable to treat Africans – students, tourists, visitors, business people, and long-term residents in India – with respect, we will find it hard to establish ourselves well in Africa.

MV: Are there any practical measures being taken by policy makers at the government level to ameliorate the lives of Africans in India? For example, in the last three to four years, many Africans have taken advantage of the e-visas issued by India. This has significantly facilitated the movement of people and the ease of access to India. Could you tell us about any such measures that have been proposed or implemented in the last two years to further people-to-people contact between the two regions?

RB: I haven’t seen much that indicates it is a live dossier presently. I would like to put a little bit of responsibility for this on the African diplomats. I think they need to learn to deal with the Indian system better, and keep the limelight on this dossier even when there is no crisis. They need not act only in times of a crisis. However, fortunately, there are people in the policy positions today, who have extensive Africa experience. In fact, in the past at least four persons who rose to be foreign secretaries were people with extensive Africa experience. Given this background, it is good to see that the present Foreign Secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla (who was Consul General in Durban when I served as the High Commissioner to South Africa), is actually an Africa expert. Mr. Shringla and his other colleagues are thus in a good position to look after the welfare of Africans living in India. What we can definitely do is to advise policy makers and officials to work on this dossier before a crisis erupts, because as soon as it does, the media swings into action, which tends to put the government into a defensive mode. We should work calmly on identifying what the practical problems of Africans in India are and systematically address them. African diplomats and official organisations need to pursue these matters suitably. It is definitely in our mutual interest that these issues are resolved fairly and on a lasting basis.