November 19, 2014 – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was greeted by cheering crowds clamouring for selfies when he landed Fiji earlier today to hold talks with Pacific island leaders about increasing his country’s engagement in the region.
The rock star welcome he received this week in Sydney after attending the G20 summit in Brisbane continued when Modi landed in Suva, with crowds lining the streets for a glimpse of the first Indian leader to visit Fiji since Indira Gandhi in 1981. “After this ceremony I don’t feel like a visitor, I feel that I belong here,” Modi said following a traditional welcoming service performed by chanting Melanesian warriors in grass skirts.
Almost 40 per cent of Fiji’s 900,000 population are of Indian origin, mainly descendants of indentured sugar plantation workers shipped in by the British during the colonial era, and Modi said strong links to Fiji remained. “The tides of history brought our people to be formed, forging the timeless link that makes the relationship special,” he said, before walking among the 5,000-strong crowd at Suva’s Albert Park, shaking hands and posing for photographs.
Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama noted Modi’s visit brought the leader of the world’s largest democracy to the world’s newest, after the Pacific nation held elections in September to end eight years of military rule.
Bainimarama, the coup leader turned politician who won by a landslide, expressed pride that Fiji had staged a ballot in which everyone was treated equally, eliminating the electoral disadvantages suffered by ethnic Indians in the past. “This is a visit of the leader of the world’s largest democracy to Fiji, a nation that just instituted the first true democracy in its history,” he said. “We are now a nation in which all people come equally and so today it is not just the government of Fiji that welcomes the Prime Minister of India, it is the people.”
Modi praised the recent elections in an address to parliament before meeting a dozen Pacific island leaders at a specially convened “mini-summit”. The meetings was a chance to court regional leaders, who form one of the largest voting blocs at the United Nations.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is also in the region after the G20 summit, will hold a similar meeting in Fiji later this week, seeking to build strategic ties with the island nations.
Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna said it was gratifying to see small Pacific nations receiving such attention, adding that India’s rapid economic growth presented an opportunity to the islands. “It is a major player in the world economy and therefore we need to have a close relationship with India,” he told the Fiji Sun newspaper.