India Inc

India has proved to be a popular—and clever—investor in poor countries

It cannot match China’s heft in foreign investment, but offers lessons for other investors

IN CENTRAL Lusaka a brand-new flyover flutters with the green, white and saffron of the Indian flag. Throughout the Zambian capital lorries produced by Tata Motors, part of the steel-to-tech Tata empire, are used for everything from construction to rubbish collection. Signs inside the vehicles instruct drivers in both English and Hindi. The lorries’ occupants phone each other over a mobile network run by Bharti Airtel, an Indian telecoms firm.

Many Zambians, like people in many other developing countries, complain loudly and often about the Chinese firms that are big local investors. India is also a big commercial presence but no one bats an eyelid. Tata Motors has huge assembly plants in many countries, including South Africa and Malaysia. Bharti Airtel is one of the biggest telecoms operators in Africa. The Aditya Birla Group is the world’s largest producer of carbon black, an ingredient in car tyres. It is one of Egypt’s biggest industrial investors and exporters.

Even in sectors governments deem strategic, such as infrastructure and communications, Indian foreign direct investment (FDI) is not viewed as geopolitical scheming or hegemonic…