A timely message to Maghreb
It is time that India seizes the tenuous Moroccan foothold to expand its presence in the north African region
There is a Moorish footprint in India which India does not much remember though Morocco does somewhat endearingly. That long-forgotten link was recalled by members of a Moroccan delegation which visited this country on the occasion of opening of its National Tourism's office in New Delhi.
Almost a hundred years ago, Maharajah Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala had conceived of consecrating a mosque for his loyal Muslim subjects. As were the Maharajah's wont, Jagatjit Singh commissioned a French architect for his mosque, obviously at a hefty architect's fee. The then governor-general raised objection, seeking justification of spending so much money. To that the Maharajah had replied that 60 per cent of his subjects were Muslims and desired a mosque for them which seems to have settled the issue.
The Moorish Mosque in Kapurthala has very close architectural similarities with the Grand Mosque of Marrakesh. It is time that India seizes that tenuous Moroccan foothold to expand its presence in at least the North African region.
More so because India has been left with few friends in Africa, having been increasingly eclipsed by China's massive money power. China has, for example, announced $60 billion grant for some of the African countries at a China-Africa conclave in Beijing earlier this month. Its humongous outlays for building infrastructure, corporate farms, and an African version of its signature Belt and Road Project are displacing even the United States.
And Africa is important because this huge continent is now waking up and developing. It is a market of the future and the African countries can be critical diplomatic allies in India's search for an equitable world order for the emerging nations. Their voice could count a lot and the diplomatic value of the African nations is well appreciated by the European Union, which is also playing hardball for winning influence. EU has accorded priority status to the African countries and allowed them duty-free entry in the EU markets as LDCs.
In this bitter struggle and diplomatic jostling for the eyeballs in the African continent, India cannot hope to match dollar-for-dollar its neighbour. Traditionally, our effort to maintain presence in Africa centred around South Africa, mainly because of a large population of Indian origin, old association with the memories of Mahatma Gandhi's days in that country and cricket. These are now wearing thin. South Africa is becoming increasingly unstable politically and losing its influence on pan-African voice.
Morocco, among the North African countries, is warm to India. One of the most liberal and progressive countries in the African continent, Morocco is politically stable and has a congenial law and order situation. It is one of the safest for the tourist.
That the country cares for its relationship with India was demonstrated when its foreign minister travelled to India to sign agreements on tourism and aviation. Generally, these are kept at lower levels of hierarchy. But there is a difference in perception.
Moroccans feel India considers Morocco and the region as an extension of Middle East. But they feel it is distinct – Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya (specifically excluding Egypt) are what is called the Maghreb. Indian diplomatic establishment, however, describes this entire region as WANA (West Asia and North Africa). So the think tanks and policy-makers expect a nuanced difference in treatment in their relations. These are basically Francophone nations, which have their own preferences and priorities as a region. This needs to be recognised, as they feel.
Fortunately for India, it has a certain capital of soft power, which appeals to these countries. Despite its lack of teeth in realpolitik through money power projection, India has a deep pool of goodwill. As the visiting delegation pointed out, from Bollywood to Indian food, Moroccans have a receptive mental receptacle for things Indian. A greater exposure of people to the country could bring about a radical change in perception, they believe. Interestingly, Morocco also happens to be the most favourite destination for global tourism. For a country of its size, it attracts several million tourists from across the world.
But of course, its mainstay in tourism is the perpetual flow from across the Mediterranean. At its closest, Spain in Europe and Morocco in Africa are separated by only a 13-km wide stretch of water. As a visiting member of the Moroccan delegation said: "You can see Spain from my home on a clear day". It is the weekend destination from all over Europe.
But if any one group has made the difference recently it is the Chinese, once again. Four years back hardly about 15,000 Chinese would visit the country. Today, it is as many as a quarter of a million tourists who come from China. India is emerging with its presence, hopefully. During the current year, around the same number of Indians visited Morocco as the Chinese four years back. In response to the slowly emerging numbers, Morocco has opened its tourism office in Delhi to tap the Indian market.
No less important is the flow of trade between the two countries. It is rising steadily over the last five years. But most important is that there is potential for much larger gains. India as a growing economic power is a major player in the global commodity markets and Morocco has several key raw materials to offer. Maybe, with a little more effort trade can flourish and benefit both.
Send a message to Maghreb we are keen for their friendship. Why not?
(The views expressed are strictly personal)