Suri, who had earlier been tipped to become India's consul general in Karachi, was later named for Johannesburg following the inordinate delay over finding a suitable plot of land for a Pakistani consulate in Mumbai.
Suri, who joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1983, and earlier served in Indian missions London and Washington, was in Mumbai for a seminar organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry on India-Africa Project Partnership Showcasing Opportunities, where he argued that it was time Indians stopped looking at Africa as a 'Dark Continent.'
In an interview with rediff.com's Deputy Managing Editor Ramananda Sengupta, Suri insists that Africa and India share natural affinities which buttress a growing economic and and political relationship.
Who are our three largest trading partners in South Africa?
South Africa is number one, Nigeria is number two, and Egypt is number three. With South Africa we have a very large trading relationship, we buy a lot of important minerals from them, we also get technologies from them in mining and coal-to-gas-to-liquid and so on. But it's also increasingly a market for us. For our vehicles, for our manufactured goods. The Tatas are selling as many as 5,000 Indicas a month in South Africa alone.
With Nigeria, it's our second-largest source of oil. Something like 20 per cent of our oil comes from Nigeria. And again, it is an increasing market for our manufactured goods, for our pharmaceuticals, and engineered products.
Egypt is a country that we have a long-standing relationship with, and we have some joint ventures which we have just set up in the fertilizer industry. The Birla group has some long-standing ventures there for carbon black and so on. So it's a fairly diverse relationship, but I'd say those are three of the biggest ones.
Is India among the primary players in Africa, in terms of business and other ties?
I don't think so. A lot of countries still have very close ties with their former colonial masters. So in Francophone Africa you'd see France as number one, in Anglophone you'd see the United Kingdom or the United States in some cases. But what is happening is that there is a new generation of leadership coming up in a number of countries in Africa, and those leaders are today saying that even after 40 years of independence, we are still as dependent on our colonial masters as we were before.
So some of them are articulating a sort of Look East policy, and for them, look east is India and China. So these are two countries that are looming large on their radar screen, and increasingly getting more attention from them. This is a process that has just begun, and you will see it gather a lot of momentum in the coming years.
How big are the US and China as economic players in Africa?
I think you will find they are largely in the extractive industries, minerals, oil and so on. I think where we can come in is the areas of services, and small industries. For instance, in countries like Ghana and Tanzania, India is among the top investors. In Ghana it is number two after the UK. So there is a change happening.
And we have strengths, as I was saying earlier, in the SME sectors, we have strengths that are unique, and uniquely appropriate for a number of countries in Africa. So we hope that Indian companies are going to be playing a much more active role in the coming years.
Politically, what kind of a role are we playing?
We have excellent relationships. There is an enormous amount of goodwill for India. Many Africans, especially the older generation, recall our support for the African independence movement, they recall our support for the campaign against apartheid, against colonialism, and India was a leader in that fight. So there is a feeling of affection for India.
Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru are revered throughout Africa. Bollywood is a major element. And when you look at key political issues like the UN Security Council reforms, for example, we think that as and when the vote comes up, most of Africa will support India's candidature. Most countries have told us, officially or privately, that is no issue at all, it is an automatic gesture for them to support India.
How large is the Indian Diaspora in Africa?
The biggest obviously is South Africa, which is 1.3 million. We have large communities in East Africa, in Mauritius, in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania. We have a fairly sizeable community in Nigeria, and now a growing presence in Ghana. The total would in the range of about 2.5 million.
All second or third generation?
In east Africa there is a large community which is even fourth or fifth generation, as in South Africa. But in other places we have a large professional communities of Indians, so you have doctors and skilled workers and so on, so it's a different profile there.
Are we trying to leverage this Diaspora in any way?
Obviously, wherever we have a successful Diaspora, it serves as a bridge between India and wherever that Diaspora is based. There is an automatic affinity, and if they contribute well to the local society, then that clearly becomes a strong element in favor of a closer relationship with India.
But I wouldn't say there is a conscious effort to leverage politically, because we have no political issues with Africa, and we do get a lot of support from African themselves.
So are there any issues or irritants in our dealing with any African nations?
Not really. This is what I am trying to say. Our relationships at the political level with virtually every country in Africa is stable, it is very positive.
And in a sense, they have such high expectations from India, that to many of them -- in the manner we have retained our democratic institutions, the manner in which our economy is growing -- it is a role model, and they look to India for support. And for us, the challenge is to deliver and to meet those expectations.
What would your primary focus be once you get to South Africa?
The primary focus will be on the economic and commercial relationship. And Johannesburg is the commercial hub, not just for South Africa, but for southern Africa. There are a number of Indian companies that have a presence in Johannesburg, or in other cities in South Africa.
Trade is growing rapidly, and it will be my endeavor to make the consulate general of India in Johannesburg as the office that businessmen from both sides can come to for consultation, for information, and for us to play the role of a catalyst.