As Portuguese President Cavaco Silva begins his official visit to India today, he will observe a country quite different from the one that greeted Vasco da Gama back in 1498. Unlike then, when mighty Portuguese cannons ruled the seas and set the rules, it is India that now occupies a central position in the international system.
The ironies of history are truly remarkable. Half a millennium ago, Portuguese vessels roamed the Malabar coast, searching for ports of entry to the rich Indian and Eastern spice markets. Today, Portugal comes to India promoting itself as a port of entry to the West and as a strategic platform for Indian interests in Europe, Africa and Latin America.
What advantages does Portugal offer to India in this ‘Asian century’? Above all, its strategic situation at the western-most tip of Europe, facing the Atlantic Ocean, with a dynamic economy, from a booming tourist industry to world-class services, textiles and automobile industries, all ready to be a part of India’s economic miracle. It thus serves as a privileged gateway for India to explore the emerging Portuguese-speaking markets of Brazil, Angola and Mozambique. Portuguese is the native language of more than 200 million people, being the official language of eight countries in four continents.
As a member of the European Union, Portugal is also of great political importance to India. The rotating presidency of the EU will, from June onwards, be in Portuguese hands and Prime Minister Jose Socrates will represent the European side at the next EU-India summit in New Delhi in November. Thirty-two years after the re-establishment of diplomatic ties between the countries in December 1974, Socrates will be the first-ever Portuguese Prime Minister to pay a bilateral visit to India.
Another important bridge is the 70,000 members-strong Indian community in Portugal — the third largest in Europe — its members hailing mostly from Goa and Gujarat. The Hindu community of Portugal is a well-organised and influential minority in the country. It is, therefore, no surprise to see many People of Indian Origin in the Portuguese presidential delegation: the President of the Islamic Community of Lisbon and of Efisa bank, Abdol Vakil; the Communist Party-elected MP Abílio Fernandes; the former MP and President of Lisbon’s Oriental Studies Institute Narana Coissoro; and business magnate and owner of confectionaries Dan Cake, Kantilal Jamnadas, among others.
Cavaco Silva has accorded great importance to this State visit. Three ministers, two secretaries of State and 70 of Portugal’s best business managers are part of his delegation. And next week, he will be a guest of honour at the Leadership Summit in Bangalore. All this transmits a clear message: it is now India’s time to discover Portugal and its opportunities for Indian interests.
Constantino Xavier is a Portuguese research scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.