India in Fiji: When Modi meets Bainimarama

Recently elected India PM, Modi, is visiting recently elected Fiji PM, Bainimarama.

Both PMs are used to flexing their muscles and getting what they want; neither is above accusations of human rights abuses; and both attract considerable criticism both nationally an internationally.

Modi is a Hindu nationalist. Bainimarama is supposedly a multi-ethnicist, going by his rhetoric and the various institutional and constitutional changes wrought by his Attorney General, an old acquaintance of mine from my fieldwork days.

I cannot imagine that politics and ideology will be high on the agenda during discussions; if it were, I’d be hard pushed to anticipate who would flex the greater amount of muscle and force the other into submission.

Modi will likely have and find more empathy with Fiji’s Opposition bench, notably the Ro Kepa led SODELPA party which harkens back to the good old days of indigenous Fijian rule and controversial pardons for ethnic coup supporters.

This empathy is nothing new. Indo-Fijians have long wanted the indigenes to feel secure in their motherland, and during my fieldwork they were vociferous about safeguarding Fijian land rights, drawing on the notion of the bhumiputra (sons of the soil) to explain this.

I would like Modi’s visit to Fiji to be emblematic of the Indo-Fijians’ support for Fijian security; I would like it to function and be meaningful in ways that will bring greater empathy between Fiji’s two main groupings.

And yet….

I know that that empathy lies deep within Fiji society. My own research illustrates that during times of national crisis the empathy between Fijians and Indo-Fijians is animated to a degree that perhaps isn’t always necessary or visible during times of stability.

Coups, violence, rupture can help concentrate the mind on what matters. And invariably, what mattered to my Fijian interlocutors in Fiji during the 1987 and 2000 coups was safeguarding their Indo-Fijian friends and neighbours.

Now that a modicum of stability has been achieved in Fiji, it is up to the Indian and Fiji PMs to continue to embed narratives and practices of mutual engagement and understanding. What I think will happen is that politics is sidelined, and talk will be dominated by important issues relating to economics, investment and trade.

I hope, however, that India and Fiji find ways and create space for dialogue that sends a positive and enduring message to the people of Fiji that gives them hope for the future.

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