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India’s new best friend

While addressing distinguished guests at the third India-Africa Forum Summit (IAFS) in New Delhi in the fall of 2015, Moroccan King Mohammed VI emphasized the need to foster a multidimensional partnership between Morocco and India, based on which a thriving Afro-Indian ties can be achieved.
And taking cue from the Moroccan monarch, Indian Vice President Hamid Ansari declared, during his recent trip to Rabat, New Delhi is keen to inject a new impetus to the India-Morocco bilateral relationship and make the Arab Maghreb country the primary hub for its economic activities in the African region. Indeed, as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi admitted candidly during IAFS-III, there is a huge gap between expectations and action with regard to India’s outreach to the resources-rich continent, especially the greater Maghreb region of northwest Africa.
Despite deep-rooted socioeconomic linkages with Africa, Indian foreign office mandarins were unable to leverage this unique relationship, dating back to pre-independence era, adequately even as neighboring China made significant inroads into one of the world’s most important and strategic places. During the last decade Beijing’s trade with African states has grown 10 times with the total value reaching close to the $300 billion mark in 2015 — Africa’s highest with any single country. Besides, the Chinese leadership believes there is ample potential for expanding the amount to $400 billion by 2020 as inadequacy in physical infrastructure has restricted Africa's sustainable development.
China’s burgeoning economic presence in Africa has ensured that the Asian giant’s investment in the continent jump from $7 billion in 2008 to $30 billion in 2015.
In stark contrast, New Delhi’s trade with Africa hovers around the $70 billion mark and though the Indian investment in the continent is approximately $50 billion, a sizable portion is ultimately parked in the tax haven of Mauritius. Moreover, Indian investments are mostly concentrated in east and southern Africa due to early historical connection and presence of Indian origin people in significant numbers.
Unfortunately, India’s strategic relations with Africa, which boasts of more than half of the world’s fastest growing economies, has somehow not been high on the Indian establishment’s agenda for quite some time. Surely, the Indian government needs to do more than merely paying lip service to the concept of India-Africa cooperation. As new global dynamics fuel a subtle shift in Africa’s partnership with traditional friends, with the African powerhouses redefining and shaping its policies in tune with the altered scenario, New Delhi must display a greater degree of diplomatic sagacity and foresight in dealing with African nations.
Perhaps, Ansari’s visit to Morocco and Tunisia reflects the sense of urgency creeping in within the Indian foreign establishment, as diplomats struggle to keep pace with a new reality in the Afro-Arab world and is often left stranded, unable to decide on which side to take in a tricky zone where all stakeholders are essentially partners in India’s formidable growth. In fact, Ansari’s Africa sojourn was the maiden one undertaken by any top Indian leader to the African mainland under the present BJP-led National Democratic Alliance dispensation, whose leader Modi has shown an uncanny penchant for rubbing shoulders with the big powers of global politics only. Barring Modi’s trip to the island nations of Mauritius and Seychelles last year, only ministers in the government traveled to mainland African nations on official tour. For New Delhi therefore, this is the most opportune moment to nurture Morocco carefully as its rival China, having effected a rise in domestic wages to stimulate internal demand, is now eyeing this northwest African nation as an overseas base for manufacturing.
And with Rabat diversifying its economy beyond phosphate export and banking upon manufacturing —from textiles, automobiles to electronics — financial and new sunrise sectors to strengthen inclusive growth and create enough job opportunities for an increasingly restive young population looking for lucrative career options, India should encourage its big manufacturers, both public and private, to invest lavishly.
Morocco, after all, has a fairly good ranking in the ease of doing business globally and provides a level-playing field for foreign investors in terms of facilities and privileges. Moreover, Moroccan companies are extremely keen to do business with their Indian counterparts in areas of research and development, innovations, renewable energy, infrastructure and education among others.
Above all, entering into fruitful partnership in extraction and exploration of resources will work wonders for Indian economy. Surely, no leadership with a long-term strategic vision would ever lose such an opportunity to cement ties with a nation like Morocco, which can act as a springboard for export and investment into a market of 1 billion people across Europe, Africa and America, thanks to Rabat’s free trade agreement with 55 countries in these continents.
Since, Morocco is a vital pillar of stability in the Afro-Arab world, vigorously advocating socioeconomic liberalism without compromising rich cultural heritage to confront radical extremism, there is always scope, beyond food security parameter in bilateral relations, for unpacking new facets of collaboration.