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Rediff.com  » Business » Mauritius can teach India hard lessons

Mauritius can teach India hard lessons

May 16, 2003 16:33 IST

India's High Commissioner to Mauritius was replaced on April 28 on grounds of improper conduct. It's not the first time a diplomat would have been admonished, and unfortunately, it won't be the last.

Impropriety is as much a feature of the diplomatic service as it is of any other, and the Theory of Inevitability of the Bad Apple applies here too. Moreover, while an Indian High Commissioner to Mauritius may have indulged in plush, pettiness and internal politics, there have been other instances when senior diplomats have practiced one or the other black art over the years in stations as diverse as Paris, Kuala Lumpur and Hanoi.

But the chance of collateral damage in Mauritius, as it were, is far higher than in many other nations. A transfer, diplomatese, a deal, a visit, can and do soothe nerves and buy peace.

In that tiny island nation, India generally stands a greater risk of things going wrong. It's born of presuming too much. Even, of a sense of overlordship over a part of India's Great Migration.

Indians often treat the tiny island nations and distant outposts of the Diaspora like Fiji, Mauritius, Trinidad and Guyana as live curios: guano heaven with Indian traders, tourist destination that serves mega-shopping and Le Rock Bhojpuri, and the occasional meteoric cricketer and repressed writer.

In turn, people of Indian origin in these places generally take India as a mother country of sorts, the source of cultural roots, priests, religious knick-knacks, trousseau shopping, and symbol of democracy and universal suffrage -- chaotic, but proud and welcome.

After all, identities and aspirations were woven from these threads. For more than a century, a remembered history fed fierce yearning for independence from a cruel plantation life and oppression. But "even this image fades with time," Sir Vidiadhar Naipual wrote tellingly. "After two or three generations, traditions cannot be maintained. They will move out into the country. They will strictly not be Indian people."

What is left is at best an idea of India. But even in a globalised world fires flares up now and then. And that can singe India.

For reasons of geography and proximity, Mauritius is the closest to India. It has the most evolved literacy, economy, standard of living and sense of politics among Indian-heavy enclaves across the world.

From here more than anywhere else, leaders of Indian origin have looked to India and traveled to India for support.

In turn, India has more often than not treated Mauritius as a backyard where it would like to see its writ run, provide India a crucial lever into the African continent and the Indian Ocean Rim -- that customary yea-vote at United Nations is almost a given.

Over the years, ties have grown. Indian movies are filmed in Mauritius and Indians holiday there by the planeloads: a non-stop flight from Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai. Indians get great deals in shops. Thanks to a double taxation avoidance treaty backed by an almost zero tax regime in Mauritius's special economic zones, Mauritius has figured in the Top 10 foreign direct investment sources into India since the late-1990s.

Indian prime ministerial trips to Mauritius and the reverse flow are almost calendar events.

In all this, one facet is overlooked. What happens in Mauritius doesn't significantly change life in India -- not even if the plum double taxation avoidance treaty is diluted one day. If Mauritius goes, there will emerge another, like the Cayman Islands, and Jersey -- maybe even Labuan, the now forgotten offshore haven in Malaysia.

But what happens in India and routes out of India can and does significantly change life in Mauritius.

Mauritius is a special place with a special set of social and political imperatives. It's incendiary and fraught with similar contradictions as is India. Numerous ethnic, religious and social groups live in a paradise that gives a pretty good impression of a pressure cooker.

India has space and still finds it difficult to manage pulls and pressures. Mauritius is an island nation of 2,040 sq km, not significantly larger than India's National Capital Region. English is the official language, but people would rather speak French, Creole, Bhojpuri, Hindi, Urdu, and Hakka.

The population of 1.2 million is overwhelmingly Indo-Mauritian at 68 per cent, bottom of the ladder Creole comprise 27 per cent, Sino-Mauritian 3 per cent, and economically dominant Franco-Mauritian 2 per cent.

Let us for a moment forego the religious ingredients, of a 52 per cent Hindu nation, followed by Christians at 28.3 per cent, Muslims at 16.6 per cent, and the rest a mix of animism and other faiths.

On the surface, this is vibrant. Under it, tension seethes. "In these little places -- they are little places, and very far away," wrote Naipaul.

"Men are compelled to indulge in petty racial politics, in a way it's rather forced on them, from which at the moment there is no escape."

Small things can get twisted. Not too long ago, in Mauritius Hrithik Roshan was talked about -- even if jokingly in most parts -- as the Hindu answer to Shah Rukh Khan.

The mere presence of an Indian prime minister at a public meeting, as happened in 2000 when Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Mauritius at the invitation of then Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam, can be construed as an endorsement of the candidature of the Mauritian incumbent.

Various Mauritian organisation fight over funds donated by the Government of India or its various sponsored agencies, or a visit to its premises by a VIP. The one at the receiving end is seen as blessed and the other not worthy of Indian benediction.

By extension, India's High Commissioner to Mauritius is almost like a Cardinal of this patch of the Indian Ocean. His writ doesn't run but it does a fair power-walk, as it carries the weight of the 'old country.'

To be invited to his pretty, sprawling home is a singular honour. India and her representatives can be all pervasive and intrusive if they choose. Arrogantly, bad apples can and do take Mauritius for granted.

It's no secret that Creole, who are seen by Indians and others as little more than Sega dancers and entertainers, chafe at the near-total domination by Indo-Mauritians of government service and the middle-class.

Naturally, the Creole are the Franco-Mauritian politicians' delight. Besides, the islands prominent newspapers are mostly owned by Franco-Mauritians, and revel in sniping at Indo-Mauritian politicians and those seen to be too inclined to India.

Pro-India stands are seen as over-riding the interests of Mauritius and by a sleight of culture, France, seen by some influential Mauritians as a calling higher than India.

That is why alarm bells start to ring with a charismatic Franco-Mauritian, Paul Berenger, to soon assume premiership in Mauritius.

Berenger is too canny to jeopardise ties with India -- his country's bottomline looks fairly good because of India -- but it would be too tempting for him to pass up the opportunity of needling his Indo-Mauritian political opponents, and by extension the Indo-Mauritian community and the High Commission of India.

It won't be surprising if the flavour of his administration is French -- after all, France is a source for fine wines as well as a window of opportunity into the new Europe -- even if realpolitik decides Berenger won't rock the Indian boat too much.

A decade ago, India would have been caught flat-footed in Mauritius with only an embarrassing way out. Now policymakers and practitioners are quicker. They realised the diplomatic value of keeping a low profile when Mahendra Chaudhry was deposed as Prime Minister of Fiji a few years ago -- to make it an Indian issue would have doomed Indo-Fijian aspirations and island peace.

They realise now the value of quickly exiting a bad situation in Mauritius and start to mend fences with a new High Commissioner -- and perhaps, a new energised Mauritius and Indian Ocean Rim policy.

In a broader sense, many in India are coming to realise that India cannot leverage its 20 million-strong contingent of People of Indian Origin and Non-Resident Indians across the world, their billions of dollars in assets, and their priceless support for forming political and public opinion in their chosen countries of residence, if India can't get its balancing act right. Volatile Mauritius is a ripe proving ground.

It's a good thing too. Because at the end of the day it's not about islands in the sun, but India's day out.

Sudeep Chakrvarti is a New Delhi-based analyst and strategic advisor and former Deputy Editor of India Today.

Sudeep Chakravarti