A small nation that's big on India's agenda now

  • Shubha Singh
  • Updated: Nov 11, 2014 23:34 IST

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Fiji on November 19 will take place at a significant moment: The island country recently made a remarkable transition from military rule to an elected government.

After eight years of military rule, Admiral J V Bainimarama shed his uniform, formed a new political party and contested the elections to win 59% of the votes. Following the result of the September 17 elections, there is rush of regional powers and the US to rebuild ties with the new government.

Modi will be the second Indian PM to visit Fiji. Indira Gandhi had visited Fiji in 1981, just after it had celebrated a decade of independence. It was a high point in India-Fiji relations.

India's leading role in the decolonisation movement and its friendly overtures to the newly independent island nation gave it a high profile in the region. Mrs Gandhi received a particularly warm reception with the elaborate traditional Fijian ceremony used to welcome high chiefs.

India-Fiji ties are once again on the upswing after three decades of fluctuations. Bilateral relations have consolidated in the past few years as Fiji has come to view India as a major development partner.

Bainimarama was among the first foreign leaders to congratulate Modi on his victory and invite him to Fiji. Modi's prompt acceptance of the invitation would reinforce the ties between the two nations.

The relations between the two countries froze after a military coup in 1987 when the Indian envoy was expelled and the high commission closed down. Diplomatic ties were restored in 1999, but went into a decline in 2000 when Mahendra Chaudhry, Fiji's first PM of Indian origin, was deposed by an armed gang.

Fiji has two main ethnic communities: The indigenous Fijians (56% of the population) and the ethnic Indians (37%), whose ancestors were brought to work in plantations over a century ago.

The two communities had lived in harmony in their separate spheres in the first decade-and-a-half after independence in 1970. But radical indigenous Fijians were unwilling to share political power with the economically dominant Indian community, which resulted in two coups in 1987 and 2000. In 2006, military commander Bainimarama claimed the coup was to root out widespread corruption and ensure equity for all citizens of Fiji. He apologised for the violence against the Indians during the earlier coups.

As Australia, New Zealand and the US imposed sanctions after the 2006 coup, the military regime countered this bid to isolate it by shifting its focus towards Asia, especially China and India.

India has concentrated on development cooperation through modernising Fiji's sugar industry, capacity building, IT, education, tourism and small industries. With its liberal funding, China has provided for rural infrastructure projects, roads and low-cost housing in Fiji.

The new constitution promulgated earlier this year put an end to the earlier race-based electoral system that ensured a fixed racial balance in Parliament but actually served to accentuate the ethnic divide in politics.

The period of authoritarian military rule brought a measure of stability, some developmental initiatives and improved law and order in its latter years.

The vote in the recent elections was for stability and security. Bainimarama's party drew support from across ethnic lines in the country; significantly getting a majority of the ethnic Fijian vote and a major part of the votes of the Indians and other minorities. The election result showed that the politics of race that had dominated Fiji for the past decades was no longer a significant factor in the elections.

There is great enthusiasm in Fiji about Prime Minister Modi's visit; he will be welcomed by Fijians who are looking at a future with a renewed sense of optimism.

(Shubha Singh is a columnist and political analyst)

(The views expressed by the author are personal)

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