Why PM Modi’s voyage to Fiji matters

fiji-modiPrime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Fiji Islands would be an enormous boost for the Indian diasporic community and will underline increased warmth in Fiji’s ties with India. The scenic South Pacific island nation, which advertises itself as a ticket to happiness, is basking in the glow of restored democratic governance after a watershed election on September 17. After eight years of military rule, Fiji held elections under a new constitution and a new electoral system that guaranteed equality to all its citizens.

When Prime Minister Modi lands in Suva, the picturesque capital of Fiji, he will be the first Indian head of government to do so in over three decades; the last Indian prime minister to visit the island nation was Indira Gandhi in 1981.
Prime Minister Modi’s visit so early in the new government’s tenure would underscore the close ties that have developed between the two countries in the past few years. Fiji’s Prime Minister Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama was among the first world leaders to congratulate Mr Modi after the Bharatiya Janata Party won the national elections in May 2014. “I am confident that the true spirit of friendship and cooperation that provides the unbreakable bond between our two nations and its people will be further strengthened in the years ahead,” Bainimarama had said as he invited the Indian leader to visit Fiji at an early date. Modi had tweeted in response: “We will make India-Fiji relations stronger in the coming years.”

Indians in Fiji

fiji-india2Fiji’s population comprises the majority indigenous Fijians community (56 per cent), a large minority of people of Indian origin (37 per cent) and people of European descent and other minorities forming the rest of the population. The majority of Fiji citizens with Indian ancestry are the fourth or fifth generation descendants of Indian workers who were taken to Fiji Islands under the infamous indenture system to work on the sugarcane plantations in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Some later day Indian arrivals came as traders and Fiji now has a thriving Gujarati business community.

Fiji has a history of armed coups followed by periods of elected governments. India’s ties with Fiji have also fluctuated with the political instability in the island nation.The armed overthrow of governments in 1987 and 2000 were triggered by racial tensions as the radical section of indigenous Fijians objected to political power passing into the hands of the Indians. Fiji’s first prime minister of Indian origin, Mahendra Chaudhry, was deposed in 2000; he was Finance Minister in the Fiji Labour Party government that was ousted in 1987. But Fiji’s military commander, Commodore Bainimarama, had captured power in a bloodless coup in December 2006 that had no racial overtones, vowing to end the widespread corruption and bring in a system of equity in the country.

New Constitution, New Hopes
fiji-pmEarly this year, the military regime promulgated a new constitution and made preparations for elections by September 2014. Bainimarama stepped down as military chief, announced that he would be contest the elections and formed a new political party called FijiFirst Party. The basic features of the new constitution were equality for all citizens, a secular state, an independent judiciary, one-person-one-vote and the elimination of ethnic voting that was a feature of the earlier constitutions, proportional representation and a minimum voting age of 18 years. It did away with the clauses that reserved the country’s top positions for indigenous Fijians and decreed that all Fiji citizens would be known as Fijians, as against the earlier nomenclature that defined their ethnic origin.

During the eight years of military rule, there were emergency regulations in force, press censorship, and stringent penalties for violating regulations, but the law and order situation had improved in the country and the crime rate had reduced. The Bainimarama regime had concentrated on boosting the tourism sector, the major revenue earner in the country, provided free school education and built roads and other infrastructure in the rural areas.
fiji-touristBainimarama’s FijiFirst party won the September 17 election with 59 percent of the votes polled, bagging 32 of the 50 seats in the House of Representatives. It was Fiji’s first election that was not based on racial lines unlike the earlier elections that were held on race-based electoral rolls. FijiFirst party gathered votes from across the spectrum of Fiji society.

Fiji is listed as one of the top seven dream tourist destinations in the world. The Fiji government had launched a revamped publicity campaign last year with the slogan, “Fiji – Where happiness finds you.” With a new government settling down in power, people in Fiji can hope to find happiness with a peaceful and stable political future.

(Shubha Singh is a senior Indian journalist and the author of Overseas Indians: The Global Family)