It is difficult to believe that since Indira Gandhi’s journey to Jamaica in 1975, no Indian cabinet minister has made a bilateral visit to the largest country in the Caribbean, a region whose ancestral, cultural and traditional bonds with India define its demography and politics. But that was true until the minister for overseas Indian affairs, Vayalar Ravi, visited Kingston recently.
It is a measure of the short sightedness that often plagues South Block that in the Nineties it decided to close down the Indian high commission in Kingston as an economy measure, got the decision approved by the prime minister of that time, and then discovered that Jamaica would be soon hosting a summit of the Group of Fifteen developing countries of which India is an active member. It then went through the process of reopening the mission, which actually cost much more than the money that would have been saved so far by its closure.
That is not all. It is equally difficult to believe that in the last 60 years, no Indian minister — not even a deputy minister, in the days when the country had that now-extinct category of politicians in the council of ministers — ever visited St Vincent and the Grenadines or the Netherlands Antilles although the first Indians landed in the former in 1861. The successors of these indentured labourers now constitute a significant number of the population of St Vincent and the Grenadines.
Indira Gandhi had great sensitivity to the people of Indian origin who dominate the politics of many Caribbean states and she was not afraid to flaunt it. She also knew that there was strength in their numbers at a time when India was fighting for its place in the world, at the United Nations and through the non-aligned movement or other similar fora. But her successors generally ignored the region.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee wanted to correct this aberration and the National Democratic Alliance government invited the chairman of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (Caricom) Council to visit India. Jamaica’s foreign minister, who then headed the Council, accompanied by the secretary-general of Caricom, visited India at the end of 2003. As a result of their week-long visit, New Delhi’s relations with the Caricom were institutionalized by concurrently accrediting the Indian high commissioner in Georgetown to the Caricom secretariat. It was also agreed that an India-Caricom joint commission would be set up to streamline the diverse potential for deepening relations between India and the Caribbean. The Bharatiya Janata Party considered countries with a large number of people of Indian origin as the party’s extended constituency, but the Vajpayee government did not remain in office long enough to take its Caribbean initiative much further.
South Block returned to its familiar somnolence on this region until India was in the running for a permanent seat in the UN security council when the Group of Four countries — India, Japan, Germany and Brazil — began its campaign for security council reform. The Caribbean community is made of 20 members of whom 14 are represented in the UN general assembly. If the G-4 effort, which reached the general assembly two years ago, had been put to vote, every vote would have counted, and that was when the United Progressive Alliance government woke up to the importance of the Caribbean states.
It hastily dispatched a mere minister of state (once again) to a meeting of Caricom foreign ministers being held in Suriname in 2005. Rao Inderjit Singh, then a minister of state in South Block, brought up India’s quest for a permanent seat in the security council. He offered $1.3 million for the computerization of the Caricom secretariat and promised to honour a Caricom request for assistance in the areas of information technology, disaster management, HIV/AIDS and renewable energy. Singh further agreed to consider increasing the number of educational scholarships in India for students from the Caribbean from the existing level of 200 per year. If proof were needed that India can deliver when there are imperatives to do so, what happened in the Caribbean is an example. Against many odds, the computerization project offered by Singh was completed in just five months although it cost $300,000 more than what was projected during the visit of the minister of state.
The joint commission was to have met in 2004 and thereafter annually, but elections in India made it difficult to schedule a meeting in the first half of the year. The UPA government forgot its existence until the need arose for the votes of the Caricom countries at the UN, when Singh travelled to Suriname and promised that the joint panel would definitely hold its first meeting by the end of 2005. Once it became clear that the G-4 had become stymied at the UN, the government again lost interest in the region.
Which is why the recent visit of the minister for overseas Indian affairs can be said to be a landmark in India’s engagement with the region. In St Vincent and the Grenadines, in a reversal of protocol, the prime minister, Ralph Gonsalves, despite a broken leg, called on Ravi at his hotel. Calculating that an Indian minister from the Congress who had worked with Indira Gandhi would appreciate it, Gonsalves regaled Ravi with the story of how Fidel Castro had sent a special plane to take him to Cuba for medical treatment a few months earlier when the prime minister sustained injuries after a 10-ton truck ploughed into his vehicle. Gonsalves then drove with Ravi to the airport to see him off: when he discovered that the Indian minister may not make it in time for an appointment in Suriname, Gonsalves personally interceded with the Caribbean Airlines to reroute a flight as a special gesture to India. In exchange for all this, the prime minister had a few requests. India should open a consulate in St Vincent and the Grenadines, sign a cultural cooperation agreement with his country that would recognize traditional Indian contribution to the islands and train its civil servants.
In the Netherlands Antilles, which, like St Vincent and the Grenadines, has never had an Indian ministerial visit, people of Indian origin had numerous requests for Ravi to be taken up in New Delhi. The spate of requests reflected the long neglect of such places by South Block, although, in this particular instance, the situation had vastly improved in recent months with the arrival of a new Indian consul-general, Yashvardhan Kumar Sinha, fresh from Dubai with its challenge of a very demanding non-resident Indian population. Sinha, resident in Caracas as ambassador to Venezuela, is concurrently consul-general to the Netherlands Antilles and Aruba. He has been visiting the islands at least once a month, and the turnaround is such that the prime minister of Aruba is likely to go to India soon with offers to have Indian companies set up free zones in this constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
While the government has been sleeping, India’s unleashed private sector has been making inroads in the Caribbean, recognizing that cultural links and the presence of a large Indo-Caribbean community are assets it can bank on. The Mittals have invested $1.8 billion in a steel plant in Trinidad and Tobago where Essar Steel is setting up a plant with an outlay of $1.2 billion.
South Block’s Latin America and Caribbean division has its hands full with big countries like Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela to deal with. If the ministry of external affairs is unable to devote time for the smaller, but potentially important, countries in the Caribbean, there is a strong case for handing over these states to the ministry of overseas Indian affairs, which can do a good job of dealing with them as Ravi’s recent visit testified. But any such change in approach requires boldness and vision not to speak of turf battles where South Block will fiercely resist any attempt to cut it down to size to the advantage of another ministry.