As India seeks greater engagement on the international stage, one area where its efforts are producing limited results is Latin America. India has invested neither sufficient time nor resources in appreciating the potential that Latin America offers and its forays into the region have been hesitant and somewhat faltering. However, India has an advantage in that three “gateway” countries – Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad & Tobago – have close if muted relations with India and, with the right policies, some innovation and diplomatic initiative, India could use these countries as springboards for greater involvement in the region, with the countries offering economic opportunities in their own right.
Undoubtedly one of the major success stories of the last decade has been the significant increase in trade ties between India and the Latin America- Caribbean (LAC) region. Former Ambassador and one of India’s most prolific writers on the subject, Rengaraj Vishwanathan, notes that India’s India’s trade with Venezuela ( $12 .24 billion ) and Brazil ( $11.36 billion) in 2014-15 was more than its trade with Sri Lanka ($7.4 billion), Bangladesh ( $ 7 billion), Thailand ($9.3 billion) and Vietnam ($9.2 billion) as well as with traditional partners France ( $9.4 billion) and the Netherlands ( $8.7 billion) while trade with Mexico ($ 6.25 billion) was greater than with Nepal ($ 5.2 billion), Egypt ($ 4.7 billion) Canada ($5.9 billion), Italy ( $5 billion), Spain ( $ 5.1 billion) and Israel ($5.6 billion).Exports to Brazil ( $5.96 billion) were greater than those to Japan ( $5.4 billion), Republic of Korea ($4.6 billion), Malaysia ($5.8 billion ), Indonesia ( $ 4 billion), Thailand ( $ 3.4 billion), Nepal ( $ 4.5 billion), France( $4.9 billion), Italy($5 billion), Spain ( $3.1 billion), Turkey ( $ 5.3 billion), Egypt ( $3 billion), and South Africa ( $ 5.3 billion) and India’s exports to Mexico ($ 2.8 billion ) exceeded those to Russia ( $ 2 billion), Australia ( $2.78 billion) and Canada ( $ 2.2 billion).
Yet, India’s obsession with economic transaction has stymied efforts for a broader relationship. It is also an unfortunate fact that contact between the LAC region and Indian bureaucrats, diplomats and even academia is less than satisfactory. From the author’s personal experience in the Caribbean, as well as through interactions with several politicians, academics and citizens in the region, the Indian bureaucracy comes across as arrogant and short-sighted, being prone to be inflexible and intransigent. The bureaucrats also show little imagination or enthusiasm for enhanced ties beyond trade and are prone to treat the relationship as transactional with no regard for long-term potential.
The diplomats, when enthusiastic about their posts, often lack the resources necessary to make the impact they desire. This creates significant problems for embassies seeking to enhance interaction with the broader populace as their shortage of resources means that their efforts can at best be concentrated in areas close to the location of the respective embassy. The physical condition of Indian missions in Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname is poor and it is evident that the budget for maintenance and renovation is wholly inadequate.
Diplomatic shortcomings may have also contributed to the relative lack of success of the ITEC (Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation) Scholarship Program in the LAC region. Started in 1964, this program offers over 8000 scholarships globally. Unlike Africa and Asia, India’s ITEC slots allocated to the region are significantly underutilized. For example out of 638 slots allocated to the region in 2013-2014, only 393 were utilized.
There is also an obsession with sentimentality rather than dealing with reality. Nowhere is this more evident than in the cases of the “gateway” nations. These three countries have large Indian diasporas – 43.5% of Guyana’s, 35.4% of Suriname’s and 27.4% of Trinidad’s population is of Indian origin and proud of their heritage – and almost all of India’s efforts have been focused on cultural activities, at which the Indian diplomatic missions have had some success. However, there is an irritating tendency for the Indian government to wait until a government with people of Indian origin is elected before making more ambitious commercial and diplomatic efforts. These are inevitably hesitant and timid when compared to China and the emphasis on sentimentality has yielded much ground in respect of economic opportunity to China’s efforts.
In Trinidad and Guyana, Indian governments – especially under the Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh administrations – made efforts to court Indian origin Prime Ministers and Presidents with sentimental visits and limited aid. In neither case was this rewarded with any benefit to either India or the target countries. China, on the other hand, eschewed sentimentality and played to the egos of the respective leaders – with a visit by the Chinese President – and the desire of the respective countries for investment – rumours of China playing to the avarice of the said leaders have abounded though without evidence. China operates in accordance with its national interest and does not care which ethnic group is in power. India should do the same.
Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname have long-established Indian diplomatic missions – even if severely under-resourced. The three countries offer an attractive opportunity for Indian investors, on their own merit as well as gateways to the larger region.
All three countries have significant oil and natural gas reserves which are in need of investment, exploration and exploitation. Suriname and Guyana have abundant natural and mineral resources from timber to gold and bauxite. Again, these resources are in continuous need of investment and while China has made considerable inroads in this sphere, much scope remains for Indian involvement. India’s one venture into Trinidad’s oil industry failed because the Mittal group chose to withdraw, leading to the surrender of an exploration bloc. Since then, India has remained on the sidelines and it is time that changed.
The geographic location of these three countries, renders them useful staging grounds for forays into the larger LAC region. As countries with strong ties to major regional groups – either as members or having close ties to other members – the three countries in question have the potential to host Indian companies seeking to make inroads into the LAC region and their use of English as either an official language or as a major means of communication (Suriname’s official language is Dutch but English is quite widely used). Yet India is continuing to neglect this potential.
India needs to raise its diplomatic game. Indian missions in these three countries need to be revamped to serve as centres of information and assistance and adequately staffed by qualified personnel. In addition, India must abandon its tendency to wait for an “Indian” government to come to power and then intensify its efforts. Rather, there must be a continuous level of engagement, backed by adequate diplomatic resources to showcase India and to assist potential India’s investors. Moreover, there has to be a realization that sentimentality may have some cultural resonance, but it is no substitute for solid diplomatic and economic engagement.
However, despite obvious shortcomings, India’s good relations with Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname can serve as a stepping-stone for a revamp in India’s approach to its dealings with the entire LAC region. It is for India to rise to the occasion.
Source|Dr. Sanjay Badri-Maharaj