The India-Mauritius relationship for all its affective and cultural affinities cannot escape the inevitable adjustments resulting from the new role and ambitions which India is setting for itself in the new emerging World Order
“There comes a time in the history of a nation when it can be said that the time has come to make history. We are today at the threshold of such an era. The world wants us to do well and take our rightful place on the world stage.”
— Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, 15th Aug 2005
The brief visit of Shrimati Sushma Swaraj, Minister for Foreign Affairs of India, primarily for celebrating the 180th anniversary of the arrival of Indian immigrants in Mauritius has been a resounding success; marking as it does the first visit of a Minister of the new Narendra Modi-led government to Mauritius.
The ongoing controversies among the local political class regarding some issues of protocol as it turns out were inevitable given the pre-electoral political context. They have nothing to do, however, with the unwarranted apprehensions expressed by some politicians to the effect that this visit could be construed as an attempt by the Indian authorities to meddle in local politics. The speeches and the behaviour of the Minister all along have been a model of dignity and righteousness. Clearly what was at the top of her mind was to convey what, in any case, should be obvious: the new government in India has as much at heart the growing consolidation of the Indo-Mauritius relationship in all domains from trade to culture, from scientific research to business and investments as has been the case ever since India became independent in 1947. Translating words into action, the Government of India has extended a soft loan of nearly twenty billion rupees to Mauritius for the financing of the Light Rail Transit system.
What is perhaps as telling is the fact that the Minister took time from an incredibly heavy schedule to address a well-attended gathering of the business community of Mauritius. In their respective speeches, both Ministers of Foreign Affairs addressed the usual themes about consolidation of business ties between our two countries. Although the burning issue of the Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement was not explicitly mentioned, it was broached by Arvind Boolell.
The unfinished process of the signing of a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation and Partnership Agreement (CECPA) was also raised and one can only hope that in their conversations some progress would have been made towards finding a solution to the differences which have prevented a just and equitable resolution of these economic issues. These are proving to be real sore points on the path of a relationship which is bound to witness some transformative evolution over the coming years if not months with the advent of the new government.
In the rest of this article we shall endeavour to define some of the contours of what would probably define this new transformative evolution. It is basically premised on the belief that the India-Mauritius relationship for all its affective and cultural affinities cannot escape the inevitable adjustments resulting from the new role and ambitions which India is setting for itself in the new emerging World Order. The invitation sent out to Heads of States and of governments of the SARC, including the Prime Minister of Mauritius, on the occasion of the inauguration of the new BJP government is particularly relevant in this context.
In one of his earliest addresses to the Constituent Assembly (December 1947), Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru stated: “Talking about foreign policies, the House must remember that these are not just empty struggles on a chess board. Behind them lie all manner of things. Ultimately, foreign policy is the outcome of economic policy.” And yet for reasons which we cannot go into here, it was quite the opposite which dictated the foreign policies of India for a long time under the same Nehru as Prime Minister. Post-independence Indian foreign policy was deemed to be dictated by the promotion of “universal principles and not on narrow national interest” as the country became a champion of the concept of “Non-Alignment” during the Cold War years.
Cynics would invariably associate this approach to foreign policy with the infamous “Hindu rate of growth” of around 3% per annum which characterized the economic development of India over this same period. Be that as it may, it was in the 1990s that India finally abandoned some of its more “nationalistic” economic policies. It adopted a series of liberal measures in line with the philosophy propounded by then Minister of Finance Manmohan Singh to the effect that “globalization is irreversible and India has no alternative but to adapt to it.”
A new symbiotic relationship between international economics and international strategic developments was established even as India engaged in negotiations for a civilian nuclear deal with the United States of America. It signalled a defining moment in the process of paradigmatic change which would henceforth characterize the new foreign policy of India.
With regard to Mauritius, history will no doubt continue to play a determining part in the relationship between the two countries. However it is to be anticipated that the weight of history will be less and less important going forward, with geo-strategic considerations take precedence over it. This will embed the relationship between India and Mauritius into the more dynamic, predominantly geo-strategic sphere as opposed to the more static historical context, a qualitative shift with lots of implications.
At a time when our leaders are more and more adept at describing Mauritius as a Vast Maritime Economy (VME) as opposed to a Small Island Developing State (SIDS), a re- affirmation of the strategic location of the island as the “Key and Star of the Indian Ocean” is the order of the day. The vision underpinning this new language has all to do of course with the huge economic potential of a maritime economy enjoying a vast Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf. Add to this the critical strategic role accruing to the Indian Ocean for security purposes in an increasingly volatile region and an emerging new world order in which Afro-Asia partnership will be a key component and we have all the ingredients for the key world powers to take a keen interest in what is happening in Mauritius. It offers a unique opportunity for Mauritius to take advantage of this situation by creating a win-win situation for itself and its partners.
India for its part, geographically located at the centre of an inverted arc formed by the countries of the Indian Ocean rim considers the Indian Ocean as a critical part of its geo-strategic deployment. History and geography therefore both militate for a “special and privileged relationship” between our two countries. At a time when, as we said earlier, there is a “symbiotic relationship between international economics and international strategic developments” it is to be feared that mere reference to history and cultural ties would be an insufficient foundation for this special and privileged relationship to endure. Further consolidation of the economic and trade relationships between the two countries and the development of a strategic partnership for the beneficial exploitation of the EEZ and Continental Shelf, with due respect to the sovereignty of both nations, offer the most obvious platform for moving forward. Cooperation between businesses in Mauritius and India in the context of a Comprehensive Economic and Cooperation Partnership Agreement would provide the instrument. Last but not least will be the political will to consider this as a viable and desired future for Mauritius. The visit by Shrimati Swaraj and its sequel constitutes a clear overture in this direction by the new government in Delhi. One expects that after the next general elections Port Louis will respond positively.
Finally one cannot conclude without mentioning the role of diaspora in economic diplomacy. Over the recent decades the Chinese have been systematically relying on its diaspora for advancing their interests in different countries where there is a Chinese presence. While India has been showing more of a “caring” attitude all the time towards its diaspora in countries from Fiji to East Africa or Britain (NRIs), it is only recently that the Indian diaspora has become a more integral part of its diplomacy. The importance of the Indian community in the USA especially in Silicon Valley (the diaspora dotcoms) has been particularly significant in this movement.
Mauritius has been a special case because it is one of the rare countries where people of Indian origin constitute nearly 70% of the population and where ethnic politics has long been a dominant game in electoral contests. It would seem that in its approach to the local situation the Indians have been inspired by Rabindranath Tagore, of whom it was said: “He grasped intuitively that to appreciate other cultures one had to be strongly rooted in one’s own. He understood that the ’universal’ could be implanted only in many rich and vibrant localisms.’ He was, in other words, a perfectly enlightened man (even) for the early twenty first century who, as Sugata Bose suggests, encapsulated the spirit of the Indian Ocean World.”
* Published in print edition on 7 November 2014