Resuscitating Old Ghosts

 It all began with a shortfall in the amount of money available to pay back insurance policy holders in the now defunct BAI Group. When Pravind Jugnauth, the Prime Minister, decided to make a call on India Thursday of last week, inferences were made from his statements that he would be getting the required funds to bridge the gap from India, to which he was proceeding on official mission at the invitation of the government of India.

A country of the status of India would not give money to pay back commercial liabilities, in this case, unsatisfied insurance policy holders. Such a thing may be considered by a commercial bank, or, at worst, by international institutions like the IMF or the World Bank, bailing out a country facing a bad debt situation. India is a democracy like us and it has to be accountable in public for support it gives to another country.

It is possible the money India would give to support valid projects undertaken in Mauritius under its line of credit could release government funds tied to other specific local expenditures and thus help pay back the insurance policy holders to an extent from government sources. This is an internal matter, not the concern of India. No one-to-one equation should have been drawn between India’s line of credit to Mauritius and its utilisation for redemption of unpaid insurance liabilities.

Nevertheless, it was announced during the meeting between the two Prime Ministers in New Delhi that India had agreed to extend a half billion USD line of credit to Mauritius through its Exim Bank. Nothing unusual or having to do with the particular local circumstances since this is not the first time India is employing this channel to express financing support for projects in Mauritius. The canvass against which this line of credit was agreed was much broader in terms of general economic and strategic cooperation between the two countries.

Given this, there was now a shift in the local public conversation regarding this deal. Since the Indian Prime Minister had mentioned, amongst others, cooperation in oceanic matters and maritime security, amongst others, between the two countries, an inference was immediately drawn by parts of the local media that it involved a deal for Mauritius to cede the island of Agalega, a Mauritian outpost to the north of the country, as a military base to India. The Mauritian PM denied that any such thing was contemplated.

For the record, the Government of Mauritius has been making an effort to ameliorate Agalega’s aerial and maritime connectivity for some time. India has been helping out, in much the same way or to a much lesser degree than the Chinese have been helping development of a new port and trade/industrial hinterland in the south west of Sri Lanka, at the southern tip of India. No one in Mauritius has inferred that the Chinese Sri Lankan project is effectively a Chinese military base.

A lot of noise was made in parts of the local media that Mauritius might even be dismembering part of its territory (Agalega) to give it to India. Some went as far as to state that that would be equivalent to an act such as the British did by unlawfully excising the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius as a pre-independence exigency. In favour of India.

It is evident that India is singled out for bashing in parts of the local media without rhyme or reason. It is enough that India should be involved in any deal with us for all sorts of suspicions to be aroused about its ulterior (usually bad) motives. There are some who would gladly estrange from Mauritius areas that are integral parts of the country on one fishy ground or other but cannot smell India coming to our support to develop the country’s territories.

How much more damaging it would be if we gave Agalega better connectivity to the rest of the world and allowed flights from India to land and take off from over there as if we allowed Chinese vessels to berth in Port Louis harbour or fly into or out of Plaisance airport? Do we have any special reason to deny India access to any part of our territory as we would allow to others?

It is easy to see how flawed this interpretation of the situation is and how much it is coloured by an emotional anti-Indian bias.

We should realise that we are living in a world in which unpredictability of great power policies is being employed as a strategy for big powers to gain ascendancy. At the expense of others, who are isolated or not strong enough to fight it out against them.

Mauritius is a small economy. It depends on doing as much external trade with as many international partners as possible. Other people open up their markets to you if you are perceived as friendly, not if you are hostile at their every gesture to be friendly towards you.

What has India done for Mauritius? For decades, investors from our financial centre have gained access to the Indian markets. By so doing, we have been able not only to build up strong links with the country. We have also been able to diversify our narrow economic base. Had that not been the case, had India closed doors, many of our younger generation from all walks of life would not have gotten into rewarding careers in the financial services sector.

We should realise that, despite the strains nations have developed against each other of late (some spoke of the re-emergence of the Cold War), they have kept doors open. A country such as Russia, well endowed with resources and advanced in technology, knows that its long term future lies in cooperating with Europe and the West, not in putting itself permanently at cross purposes with that part of the world.

Who are we then to suspect a bad motive whenever we make a move to get India’s support, especially in these globally tight economic conditions? Mauritius needs international economic access in these difficult times globally. More than ever, we need to engage with as many potential partners as possible – India being one standing friend of the country since long – and be able to move with the flow in these choppy international waters.

If we start thinking that Agalega should be left to its wild abandon – because there would be a risk of it becoming an Indian military base were the Indians to be involved into giving it a decent landing strip and a more navigable harbour – we should also be asking ourselves how much a country like Singapore would have invested itself in if it had an outpost such as Agalega for it?

Mauritius cannot afford to alienate any friend, be it China or India, or America. It cannot afford it. It should do all it can to take its own agenda forward, embracing all who will help it achieve its balanced long term plan for development. Rather than resuscitating them, it is better to let old ghosts rest in peace.

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