Lusophone visions of India

JORGE ROZA de OLIVEIRA

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THIS is a somewhat difficult article I have been asked to write. I have to handle two realities – one, that I am the current Portuguese Ambassador in New Delhi; the other, that this is a personal text. What I write does not necessarily express the official position of my country. I am simply stating the view of someone who has come to know a bit of India and has some opinions. I cannot escape these either. It is no more than one Lusophone’s vision of India, albeit by someone involved on a day-to-day basis with our bilateral relations. Hopefully, it may help spur a healthy debate on how relations between Portugal and India could develop.

Portugal today stands tall and can look any nation in the eye. While we may still be wanting in some European rankings, on the whole we are today much closer to the top than we ever were. The hopes and aspirations of the Portuguese people today are no different from those in any developed country. And our social, economic and political life, for better or worse, is currently tied to Europe and to the world in general.

Ours is a democratic political system, with regular and universal elections. We have freedom of political life, a free press and an independent judiciary. We entered the European Union 25 years ago and are a respected and well-liked member of the international community. We are presently, and for the third time since 1974, a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, now along with India, an active supporter of our bid. And we have Portuguese nationals at the helm of many international institutions.

Forty years ago women constituted only 20% of our active population; today they are 50%, present in all sectors of economic and professional activity. Illiteracy is no longer an issue as it once was. From 40% in 1960, it is down to around 8% today and almost all of it within an older generation. We have a universal health care system and the fourth lowest infant mortality rate in the world. We are world leaders in liver and kidney transplants. 90% of Portuguese households have running water (from 30% 50 years ago), 98% have electricity (from 40%), and 90% are linked to sewage systems (from 40%). We have 70,000 km of roads, 3,000 of which are highways. We are a world leader in renewable energy – the fifth largest producer of wind energy in Europe, and among the top ten in the world, and have the most ambitious plans in Europe for dam building.

We have a recent Nobel Prize in literature, two Pritzker prizes in architecture, world class musicians and world renowned artists. And, of course, the Portuguese national football team is among the best in the world, we have one of the world’s best (and certainly the most vocal) coaches, and we have produced some of the best players in history.

This is the Portugal I am bringing to India, because this is not the Portugal I see much of anywhere in the subcontinent.

 

I enjoy history, but not being a historian, will not dare venture into the foggy distant past; only maybe to a nearer one. So let me take you there, with a bit of fiction, to London in 1948.

The first High Commissioner of newly independent India, Krishna Menon, goes to an embassy reception that evening with one sole aim. After some chatter upon arriving, he spots the Duke of Palmela, approaches him, and takes the Portuguese Ambassador aside. ‘Dear Duke, I come here with one simple instruction, to propose diplomatic relations with Portugal.’ ‘Dear High Commissioner, in order to be able to break them down the road, I presume...,’ the Duke added sarcastically.

Going from ice to fire, Vasco Garin, then Consul General in Montréal, became Salazar’s first and only Ambassador to India. A Vasco, like the first one in 1498. He arrived in Delhi in early January and presents credentials on the 20th, unfortunately, in time to witness the events surrounding Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination.

Two months went by before he was received by Sardar Patel, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for External Affairs – ‘the man of steel’, as he is known in Indian lore. The conversation was blunt. ‘Does Portugal wish to initiate negotiations regarding their possessions in the subcontinent?’, to which Ambassador Garin gave the same response that was to be repeated to the Indians in the following thirteen years: ‘The Portuguese overseas territories are non-negotiable...’

 

Vasco Garin stayed in Delhi for six years, leaving in August 1955 (his Indian counterpart in Lisbon had already left two years earlier). Six years during which Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Portuguese possessions, were taken over, and the French, even if unwillingly, handed over Pondicherry. But Goa, Daman and Diu continued to be non-negotiable... Prime Minister Nehru was to utter the famous sentence: ‘History will remove them.’ Ambassador Garin leaves India for the United Nations, of which Portugal had just become a member. He will have a lot of India, a lot of Krishna Menon, a lot of Nehru, in the years ahead.

I am actually crossing Shantipath, in New Delhi, this beginning of winter, the German Embassy on one side, the French on the other. Then I see the Chancery of the Netherlands, opposite the Japanese. Portugal could have had that same plot of land; it was offered to us in those few years of ‘détente’ in the 1950s had Salazar sat down with Nehru. We would have lost our possessions in India anyway, but all three parties concerned – the inhabitants of those possessions, the Indian government, and Portugal – would all have come out better and stronger. But all this is virtual history. I, myself, have to deal with the present.

 

In Hindi the same word is used for ‘yesterday’ or ‘tomorrow’ (kal), depending on the context. What matters is ‘today’, the present. Thus, being a high official of Portugal in a country called India, which begs no elaborate descriptions, I have two priorities to change the present. First and foremost, to promote bilateral trade and investment, primarily facilitating commerce from Portugal to India, and showcasing to Indian groups and business interests and companies the immense opportunities that Portugal has to offer. The second, to continue to promote the learning of the Portuguese language for an ever-growing number of Indians wanting to learn it. Enveloping these two priorities is inter-university cooperation, already active between our two countries. It has both an economic ingredient (the Lisbon MBA, for example), as well as a more academic follow-up.

One can be bewildered by the fact that with so many historic symbols of Portuguese presence all over this country, there is nothing to balance it and to also show the Portugal of today and the fine products which carry the label, ‘Made in Portugal’. Today Portugal and India hold each other in mutual respect, which is an auspicious start. Never in the history of our nations have Portugal and India seen eye-to-eye on so many issues. Portugal, moreover, has a very large Indian community, considering the size of our country. But both want more! We are in different continents, with different interests, but there are myriad windows for interaction with the prospect for mutual benefit. We have many bridges to the past, but more importantly, we have today opportunities for building bridges to the future.

 

Portugal has come a long way over the past few decades, and we have made incredible progress in areas which India also needs – infrastructure development, water management, waste management and alternative energy, just to name a few. Despite being a small country, we achieved it. And we have the expertise and know-how to share.

We also make products like wine and olive oil, which are considered to be amongst the best in the world. Robert Parker and Wine Spectator regularly classify our wines as among the best. We want to help our producers bring them to India and introduce them in the commercial channels and in the hotel circuit, amongst the growing Indian middle class. A quality beer was recently launched in Delhi, Goa and three other states, and in the second semester of 2011 we held wine tastings with four top Portuguese producers.

I agree with many of the proposals which have been tabled in think-tanks and elsewhere for furthering our bilateral relations. Among others, I will briefly list three.

1. Political and civil society dialogues: Since the Portuguese President’s official visit almost five years ago – and with the exception of the bilateral talks our prime minister held with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh the day following the EU-India Summit in November 2007 – there have been no major official visits from either side. We need to promote more visits, have more interconnection and knowledge of one another. Both societies also need to know each other better, the realities in which they live today, and the areas that can be opened up for further cooperation.

2. Business fora: Apart from visits promoted by business associations, which have been ongoing with some success, we should resuscitate the Business Forum, established in 2007 through an agreement between FICCI and the Portuguese Trade and Investment Agency, as well as the Joint Commission for Economic and Trade Affairs, established by a 2000 agreement, which we hope can meet in early 2012. This should lead to further developments in areas such as the establishment of a business conclave, for example in Mumbai, along the lines of the Macao Forum, with the view of furthering economic relations.

3. CPLP and Portuguese language training: India is a founding member of the BRICS and IBSA, joining hands in these fora with the largest Portuguese speaking country in the world. Portugal, being a close partner of Brazil, not only shares a history, but excellent political and economic relations today. Both Portugal and Brazil are also together on two fora, the Community of Portuguese speaking Countries (CPLP) and the Ibero-American Summit. We should use this relationship to broaden the cultural presence in other places, and India should definitely be one of them.

 

The growing demand in India for Portuguese language courses, and the keen interest in Lusophone culture, is a reality which should make us look seriously at the path ahead. By investing in bringing a CPLP Cultural Centre to Delhi, by collaborating on a regular basis on common projects, and by involving India in the CPLP sphere, the Portuguese speaking community in Delhi – Portugal, Brazil, Angola and Mozambique – has already been actively collaborating in cultural events which promote our language, incidentally spoken by as many people as Bengali.

And speaking of Bengali, one should also look at possibilities of interchange, especially in the area of archives and documentation, with other places that had a Portuguese presence, such as Kerala, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, as well as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

 

In 1497, Vasco da Gama sailed off from the Tower of Belém in Lisbon. Today, very near the tower stands the new Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown, a cancer research centre and headquarters of the Champalimaud Foundation. This fantastic building was designed by the Bombay based Goan architect Charles Correa. We have come a full circle, India bringing to Portugal the very best it has to offer.

I am well aware of not having written about grand strategies, regional empowerment and other such issues which I am sincerely interested in, but Portugal’s presence in India does not call for such an approach today. Things are moving fast in this country and it is basically a question of jumping onto the ship or being left alone on the pier.

Heritage is nothing but the past made active. Vasco da Gama, when he set sail from Lisbon that July 1497, had no intention of globalizing the world, or creating content for Camões’ ‘Lusiads’. His mission was basically to find a shorter path, a maritime route, to the source of the spice trade. Everything else was merely an extraordinary by-product of that mission.

All we need do is emulate that same spirit. Among the 27 members of the European Union, Portugal is today towards the bottom when it comes to trade with India. This doesn’t make sense. Do we wish to change this, help our companies, and become more relevant in India? I see no other way, but of course debates are made of give-and-take, and I look forward to reading and hearing about other approaches.

All in all, however, we cannot but look to the future of our bilateral relations with unbridled hope.

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