November 15, 2013

The other Commonwealth

India should foster links with the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries (CPLP) to give it an even more diverse, democratic and Asian identity.

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting seems to be of such importance to India’s interests that its Oxford-educated Prime Minister skipping it this month became a matter of national concern and outrage. This fixation with the majestic “Commonwealth of Nations” is puzzling given that it is the organisational successor of the 19th century Imperial and Colonial Conferences that denied India the same principles of democracy, human rights and rule of law it not professes as its core values. So if India finds it helpful to commit to this 53-country club headed by Queen Elizabeth II, it will hopefully also find some time to spare for another commonwealth; the very republican Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries (CPLP).


Founded in 1996, the CPLP differs from its British counterpart mainly because the former colonial power Portugal hardly ever played a leading role in it. The CPLP is now the institutional representative of close to 250 million people who speak Portuguese (fifth most spoken language) in eight countries across four continents, five of which in Africa (Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde, Sao Tome and Principe) and one each in Europe (Portugal), South America (Brazil) and Asia (Timor Leste).  These are the eight member states of the CPLP, and they are all of increasing importance for India, albeit for different reasons.

Brazil is a key BRICS and IBSA partner, and one of New Delhi’s most important strategic partners of the 21st century to revitalise the old South-South axis where India once predominated. Angola is a key supplier of oil and diamonds, and most recently also keen in accessing India’s immense know-how in the educational and infrastructure sectors. Mozambique has developed as one of India’s greatest success stories in Africa, with significant investments in the mining and transportation sector, but also thriving security cooperation as the Indian Navy expands its operational presence to the Indian Ocean’s Southwestern coasts and channels. Timor-Leste has immense gas reserves, and is strategically located at the heart of the new Indo-Pacific region and its swelling shipping lanes. And last, but not least, while Portugal endures a grim financial context, its privileged position by the Atlantic and its economic and political expertise on its former colonies remain of great value to an India that will continue to look West despite the new East.

Since at least 2008, I have made several suggestions for India to connect with these Portuguese-speaking countries in a more structured way, particularly through Goa, where 451 years of Portuguese colonisation and direct contact with other regions of the lusosphere have left a great potential to be explored. Slowly, things are moving forward. This January will see the small state host the third edition of the Lusofonia Games, a major sporting event similar to the Commonwealth Games, and also an international business conference on India and the lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) markets worldwide.

One further possibility would be for New Delhi to emulate Beijing’s phenomenal Macau Forum, which, since 2003, hosts a triennial ministerial economic conference between China and Portuguese-speaking states. An Indian variant, whether held in Mumbai or Goa, would certainly facilitate economic relations, but there is a way India can do better and go beyond just imitating China: it can seek to become an associate observer member of the CPLP.

Established in 2005, this observer category allows states to attend the biennial summits and get privileged access to a variety of CPLP forums and initiatives, ranging from economic and technical to security and military cooperation, as well as cultural exchanges.

There is little in the way for India to achieve this status, especially given that smaller states like Cape Verde or Timor-Leste would benefit dramatically from expanding their institutional channels with New Delhi. India also perfectly fulfills the requirements regarding democratic governance and the respect for human rights that guide the CPLP founding charter, unlike China and also Equatorial Guinea, whose recent membership bid faltered on this, among other obstacles. India would also be signaling its strong commitment to strengthen existing multilateral settings, rather than a narrow bilateral approach so often pursued by China, as embodied in the Macau Forum.

Senegal, Mauritius and Equatorial Guinea already enjoy observer status (Namibia, Georgia and Indonesia also expressed interest), and while their links to the Portuguese-speaking world may be significant, they are certainly less strong than those of India, which has thousands of Portuguese speakers and an invaluable heritage that for almost five centuries, connected it to a wider lusosphere from Sao Paulo to Macau. Mombasa, Ormuz, Malaca, and Macau were all once ruled from Goa, long before the East India Company first set up shop in the subcontinent.

The timing for all this to happen is extraordinarily propitious in 2014. Ten years ago, Jose Ramos-Horta, the country’s former president, prime minister, and minister of foreign affairs, first told me about Timor-Leste’s ambitions to develop strong links with India via Goa. As his country is set to assume its first rotating CPLP presidency in July of next year, and the current Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao pretends to give the organisation a sharper economic and Asian focus, this is the perfect time for Delhi to approach Dili about an observer status.

Furthermore, the CPLP’s current executive secretary, Murade Murargy, is a Mozambican diplomat of Indian origin, and would certainly appreciate reconnecting with his ancestral homeland even while facilitating India’s new links with the organisation of Portuguese-speaking countries.

Irony had it that until quite recently it was Lisbon, and not New Delhi, that most feared bringing up the India-CPLP link, as if that was going to resuscitate the Goa ghosts of 1961. But now that India has established direct, strong and burgeoning ties with all other seven CPLP countries, the time has come to move beyond post-colonial anxieties in the interest of more pragmatic and deeper economic relations.

Earlier this month, Tamil Nadu’s regional parties once again proved strong enough to seize India’s foreign policy and force the Prime Minister to skip the Commonwealth summit. Hopefully this will now leave him some time to look at ways to foster links with another commonwealth, the one that speaks Portuguese and looks up to India to give it an even more diverse, democratic and Asian identity.

Photo: Glyn Lowe Photoworks, 1 Million Views, Thanks

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