In this exclusive interview, Editor of New Era Chrispin Inambao interviewed the then president of India Shri Pranab Mukherjee while visiting Namibia in 2016 on a plethora of contemporaneous issues, ranging from the two countries’ bilateral ties to the renowned academic’s career as a journalist and his inimitable work ethic.
CI: How do you assess the status of the India-Namibia relationship and its growth trajectory?
PM: “India and Namibia enjoy excellent and time-tested ties, which are based on trust and mutual understanding. The two countries are vibrant democracies with well-established parliamentary traditions and strong institutions. To comprehend the extent and diversity of India-Namibian relations, it is important to go back in history. It was a delegation sent by the Indian provisional government in 1946 that successfully prevented attempts by the South African Government to obtain United Nations agreement for continuing its mandate on erstwhile South West Africa. India took the lead in supporting the Namibian liberation struggle in every international forum and provided all possible moral, material and political support to the Namibian leadership in exile. After Namibian independence, India’s partnership with Namibia continued to grow and prosper. The strong foundations of bilateral ties that were laid during founding President Sam Nujoma’s time was further consolidated during the tenure of former President Hifikepunye Pohamba. These are now being reinforced and enhanced by President Hage Geingob. All facets of bilateral relations, from trade to culture, from cooperation in capacity building to people-to-people exchanges have seen consistent improvement. I am quite pleased with the status of our bilateral relations. I am confident that the future will bring an upward growth trajectory in our ties. Many complementarities clearly exist. There is abundance of mineral wealth in Namibia and demand for these resources in India. There is a strong desire amongst Namibians to acquire skills. India has excellent capacity building institutions. I am certain that we can generate a win-win partnership in several new areas. “
CI: Your Excellency, Mr President, can you elaborate on India’s assistance to Namibia in its nation building and development?
PM: “India has been and will continue to be Namibia’s partner in development and nation-building. India’s commitment to the task of Namibian reconstruction, especially in human resource development and capacity building has been visible and appreciated. Immediately after Namibia’s independence, the Government of India announced an assistance package of N$22 million, which covered sending of Indian experts to Namibia, training of Namibians in India, implementation of developmental projects in Namibia and gifting of essential equipment. So far, over 1000 Namibians have been trained in India under the ITEC programme. Several Indian experts – government and private – have been involved with policy formulation in the country since independence. In the early days after Namibia’s independence, India provided support in diverse areas such as health, education, irrigation systems, etc. In subsequent decades, India has helped set up technology demonstration centres; installed boreholes for water, set up biogas units at agricultural training institutions; solar projects for streetlights; gifted incubators to the Indira Gandhi Maternity clinic, as well as supplied tractors and diesel engine pumps. India has also provided drought relief to Namibia on many occasions. India recently provided US$5 million (N$75 million) worth of ICT equipment for the Namibian health sector, which will help strengthen rural health infrastructure. India has also provided grant-in-aid of US$12.3 million (N$184.5 million) for establishing a Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology at the University of Namibia (Unam)’s Ongwediva Campus. Our development partnership is a continuing story. Proposals are also under consideration for setting up of a centre of excellence in information technology and an entrepreneurship development centre in Namibia, which will strengthen the capacity of Namibian officials and help generate employment. “
CI: What specific fields do you think offer the most scope for increased trade and business interaction between the two countries?
PM: “There are several complementarities in the economies of Namibia and India. This provides significant potential for the business communities of the two sides to cooperate. Bilateral trade figures do not fully reveal the actual trade between the two countries or the potential. Many Indian goods are imported into Namibia through third countries, including other South African Customs Union (Sacu) member countries. There is great scope for cooperation in areas such as mineral resources, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, renewable energy and small and medium enterprises.”
CI: There have been significant developments in the southern African region in particular, and African in general over the past several years in the area of economic integration. India has also been engaging with Africa with a renewed vigour. What role can India play in the region, especially the economic development of the Sadc/AU Region?
PM: “Together, India and Africa constitute one-third of humanity. We are among the world’s oldest civilisations. India and Africa are now among the world’s fastest growing regions and considered the two bright spots in the current global economic scenario. African nations are increasingly partnering and cooperating with each other to take responsibility for peace, security and development in Africa. Successful examples of economic reforms and infrastructure development are being replicated all over the continent. These are all very positive developments. India is happy to be a close partner of Africa. Our development partnership goes beyond strategic concerns. This partnership does not look at the African region from the narrow lens of Africa’s abundant mineral wealth. The India-Africa Forum Summit (IAFS) meetings held since 2008 truly symbolise the efforts of both India and Africa to synergise their respective strengths and put in place mutually beneficial interactions. India has so far committed over US$7 billion (N$105 billion) in concessional credit and US$ 1.2 billion in grants to Africa. Our trade volume now exceeds US$ 70 billion. Indian investments in Africa now exceed US$32 billion (N$480 billion). Thirty-four African countries enjoy duty-free access to the Indian market. India has committed to creating more than 100 capacity building institutions in Africa in diverse areas. At the IAFS-III held in October 2015, India also committed to train 50 000 African students over five years. Over 80 percent of Indian troops with UN peacekeeping missions are deployed in Africa. India has contributed US$3 million (N$45 million) to the UN and AU trust funds for the AU mission in Somalia and $1 million to the trust fund for the AU mission in Mali.”
CI: Your Excellency you were introduced into politics in 1969 by the revered former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Please share with us your fondest memories of this globally respected late Indian stateswoman?
PM: “Former Prime Minister late Mrs Indira Gandhi was truly one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable personalities. She played a major role in defining the destiny of India. I am happy to be reminded of my association with one of the most dynamic Prime Ministers of modern India, a tall leader acclaimed internationally, whose dedication and commitment to the people that she represented was unparalleled. Mrs Indira Gandhi was an untiring crusader for global peace, universal disarmament and a new international economic order. She was a tireless champion of the oppressed, not only in her country, but of those spread across the world. Mrs Indira Gandhi served as India’s Prime Minister for 16 years and throughout her tenure, she was firmly committed to the total liberation of the entire African continent from foreign domination. Anti-imperialism, support for liberation movements around the world, and specifically for the independence of Namibia, as well as the struggle against apartheid in South Africa was a major cornerstone of her foreign policy. Mrs Gandhi’s impassioned endeavours in this regard are part of contemporary history and infuse the bonds that tie us so closely today. Speaking at an Africa Week Cultural Festival organised by the African Students’ Association in New Delhi on January 11, 1982, she said, “Humankind cannot be totally liberated until the last vestiges of colonialism, racism and apartheid are swept off the scene in Africa. We have consistently reiterated our solidarity and unwavering support to the liberation struggles of the brave people of southern Africa and to the governments and peoples of the Frontline States. They have undergone sacrifices, have suffered and are suffering great hardships for a just cause, freedom is indivisible and the denial of freedom in any one place is bound to create concern everywhere else. We reaffirm our total support for the Namibian people’s right to sovereignty and express our solidarity with the struggle led by the South West African People’s Organisation.” Mrs Gandhi was convinced of the need to create “a new international order of humanity where power is tempered with compassion, where knowledge and capability are at the service of all humanity. As Chairperson of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), she remarked, while addressing the United Nations in 1983, that ‘the safety of the weak is the strength of the strong’. Mrs Indira Gandhi firmly believed that smaller nations had a key role in determining the future of the world. She referred to developing countries as “the step-children of the Industrial Revolution,” and said that they needed to be given due justice. In pursuing India’s aims, she never acted against the aspirations of other developing nations or compromised their priorities. She held that the myriad problems related to the environment, optimal utilisation of global resources and the reorganisation of political and economic systems needed the co-operative endeavours of the whole world community. Mrs Indira Gandhi will be always remembered for her untiring efforts at maintaining cohesion, unity and enhanced economic co-operation among developing nations, their autonomous development, collective self-reliance and equitable and democratic dialogue between the North and South. In terms of domestic policies, Mrs Indira Gandhi reached out to the poorest and the most deprived. She made tremendous efforts to make India self-reliant. Environment and energy were high priority issues on Mrs Gandhi’s agenda. I recall that once she had written to Chief Ministers of all States, suggesting a drive to plant a tree for every child. She stressed the value of traditional energy-saving technologies - and welcomed the development of new technologies and their adaptation to India’s needs.”
CI: Your Excellency, you are now over 80 years old and yet you are acknowledged as a compulsive workaholic who is known to have an 18-hour working day. Share with us the secret to this longevity and highly admirable work ethic. Kindly tell us about issues you feel passionate about.
PM: “I think if you have a passion to pursue your goals, other things start falling into place. I have always believed that the opportunity to serve one’s country and people is the greatest service that a person can aspire to. There is no greater reward for a public servant than to be elected the first citizen of his country. I have seen vast, perhaps unbelievable, changes during the journey that has brought me from the flicker of a lamp in a small Bengal village to the chandeliers of Delhi. I was a boy when my State, Bengal, was savaged by a famine that killed millions; the misery and sorrow is still not lost on me. India has achieved a great deal in the field of agriculture, industry and social infrastructure, but there is still much that remains to be done. I believe that our national mission must continue to be eliminating the curse of poverty and creating such opportunities for the young that they can take our India forward by quantum leaps. We must lift those at the bottom, so that poverty is erased from the dictionary of modern India. For our development to be real, the poorest of our land must feel that they are part of the narrative of rising India. I believe that as Indians, we must learn from the past and at the same time, remain focused on the future. In my view, education is the alchemy that can lead India and all developing countries to prosperity in a knowledge-driven 21st century. The motto I advocate within our country is: All for knowledge, and knowledge for all. I dream of an India where unity of purpose propels common good; where Centre and States are driven by a singular vision of good governance; where every revolution is green; where democracy is not merely the right to vote once in five years, but to always speak in the public interest; where knowledge becomes wisdom and where the young pour their phenomenal energy and talent into the collective cause.”
CI: Mr President, you once worked as a journalist with a Bengali newspaper named Desher Dak. Can you please share with us the highlights of your journalistic career? What were your main challenges as a journalist?
PM: “The media is the mirror of a society. It is a protector and an enabler of democratic institutions and processes. Journalists play an important role, not just by reporting developments, but also educating and guiding the public at large. My stint with journalism was a great learning exercise for me since it gave me an insight into my country, about challenges faced by people in their daily lives, about their hopes from the government, their aspirations and so on. The influence, credibility and quality of Indian media is well recognised all over the world. Our media has grown in scale, reach and revenues over the years. Its significance has further increased with higher literacy levels and the revolution in communication technologies. New media has brought about a convergence between traditional, audio-visual, digital and social media. It has become a powerful means for shaping the ideas, aspirations and behaviour of our people, even in the remotest corners of our country. I believe that the media must act as a watchdog of public interest. They must shape and influence public opinion, even as they provide objective and balanced coverage of news. At the same time, gloom and dark alone should not dominate news coverage. A conscious effort should be made to show what is noble and good in the society. The media must also highlight the positive and inspire change for the better. The power of the media should be used to promote liberalism, humanism and decency in public life.”
*Though this article was initially published in 2016, it remains relevant in 2019. Mukherjee served as the president of India from 2012 to 2017. - Editor