A fast patrol vessel, PS Zoroaster, funded by the Government of India (GoI) was handed over to Seychelles in an official virtual inaugural ceremony held on 8 April 2021. The inauguration was attended by the President of Seychelles, Wavel Ramkalawan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and other high-level government and diplomatic officials. The ceremony also included the completion of the Magistrates Court funded by a GoI grant of US $3.4 million as well as a 1 megawatt solar plant on Romainville Island expected to produce enough electricity to meet the consumption of approximately 400 households. ‘High Impact Community Development Projects’ have become a key part of India’s engagement with its smaller island neighbours, and the inauguration witnessed the conclusion of 10 such projects undertaken on the three main islands of Seychelles—Mahe, Praslin, and La Digue.
Though PS Zoroaster is the fourth patrol vessel gifted to SeychellIes by GoI (the first, PS Topaz, going back to 2005), the inauguration highlighted the rapidly changing lens through which India is viewing its small island neighbours. More specifically, it has shown that India’s relationship with Seychelles, an archipelago of 115 islands and a population of 98,000, is expanding in important ways. In 2015, when Modi undertook his Indian Ocean Tour of Sri Lanka, Seychelles, and Mauritius, during which, crucially, he launched the Coastal Surveillance Radar Project in Seychelles, it became clear there was a new and strong maritime security component to India’s bilateral equation with this African archipelago nation. This was further reflected in the urgency with which External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar visited Victoria in November 2020, following President Ramkalawan’s election win in October the same year.
Wavel Ramkalawan, an Anglican priest who was running for President for the sixth time in October 2020 won 54.9 percent of the votes, defeating the incumbent Danny Faure who won only 43.5 percent. His presidential election victory was further historic as it was the first opposition victory since Seychelles gained independence from Britain more than four decades ago. Recently renamed United Seychelles
Advantageously, Ramkalawan’s party Linyon Demokratik Seselwa (LDS) also won the legislative elections which were held at the same time as the presidential elections. While United Seychelles won just 10 seats in the National Assembly elections, LDS won 25 seats i.e. two-thirds of the parliament, giving Ramkalawan not only a historic win but also a strong political hand when he took office. Therefore, reaching out to the new President has been on the minds of all the major powers, particularly those with a stake in the stability and security of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
A statement put out by the US State Department articulated a desire to cooperate “on a wide range of mutual interests including maritime security, good governance, and fighting drug abuse, piracy, and terrorism.” The French Embassy said, "France stands alongside the Seychelles in jointly building a prosperous and stable Indian Ocean." The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, said “China is ready to work with Seychelles to consolidate friendship and mutual trust, deepen mutually beneficial cooperation and international coordination and elevate bilateral relations to a higher level." India while sending out its congratulations, emphasised the ideals of democracy, as the common value that binds the two countries.
India has since reiterated its position that Seychelles is central to its vision for ensuring security and growth for IOR or SAGAR as it has come to be known. Part of this engagement was the much debated and controversial Assumption Island Project, which was first signed in 2015 but subsequently stalled, delayed, and shelved over the past few years. In 2018, it was even revised and resigned only to be finally abandoned in 2020 when then Opposition Leader, Wavel Ramkalawan declared “that LDS has nothing more to do with the Assumption agreement” and “the agreement on Assumption is dead.” Given that LDS, even at that point held a majority in parliament, and that the agreement needed their support to be ratified, following these public statements the project was shelved without being put to Parliament, particularly in lieu of the upcoming elections.
Assumption Island is situated approximately 1,100 kilometres southwest of the Seychelles’ main island of Mahé. The proposed development was to be a coast guard facility to help patrol for illegal activities such as piracy, illegal fishing, and drug trafficking.
The opposition to the project were essentially of two types. One set of concerns were genuine environmental fears, with regards to the proximity of Assumption to Aldabra which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The other concerns were centred around the island’s sovereignty and the suspicion that this would become a military base to be used by India rather than a coast guard facility. Though attempts were made by GoI to later clarify that it was “a joint project” that India was merely “executing at the request of the Government of Seychelles,” the opposition to the project led by Ramkalawan garnered enormous public support and eventually the project became so ensconced within the sovereignty debate that no government was likely to find it politically viable. Ramkalawan’s campaigns against the plan which began in earnest in 2015 has been vociferous and in a post-election interview he further stated in no uncertain terms, “it is very clear, our sovereignty is sacred, there will never under my watch be a foreign military base in the Seychelles”. He also added that he believed neither India nor China were interested in having a base in the Seychelles.
Given the negative perceptions around the proposal and the fact that President Ramkalawan was its most ardent critic, it is unlikely the Assumption Island agreement will be revisited anytime soon. Taking office amid a pandemic, Ramkalawan’s focus will rather be on dealing with the current crisis. Due to its geostrategic location, Seychelles is being courted not only by India, but by several other countries such as China, France, UAE, and even Russia that has recently made a donation of US $500,000 to the COVID-19 relief fund. Rather than competing with others, India is trying to proactively change its approach towards its smaller neighbours by focusing on human development, through its High Impact Community Development Projects. It appears that India has chosen to move beyond the Assumption Island project for the time being and is focusing its attention on other areas of cooperation such as civilian infrastructure, hydrography, and twinning cities.
While continuing to stress the centrality of Seychelles for India’s security goals, India should simultaneously focus on what Seychelles’ needs from its partners. Though Seychelles has recorded very few cases of COVID-19 the impact of the pandemic in terms of the restrictions on travel and the overall decline in international tourism has been drastic. For Seychelles reaching out to its partners, boosting tourism, reopening the nation for business, and economic development are crucially intertwined goals. The importance of tourism to the Seychellois economy is made further clear by the fact that Sylvester Radegonde serves as both the Minister for Tourism and Foreign Affairs. In this regard, Jaishankar’s discussions with Radegonde on trade, tourism, and commerce were well received as was the donation of 50,000 doses of COVISHEILD; this was reflected in President Ramkalawan statement, “If we are nearing our target of achieving 70 percent of herd immunity by end of April 2021 and have re-opened our country to business, it is, in large part, due to this precious donation.”
Given that the opposition to the Assumption Island Project was able to garner significant public support, it is important for India to address the general and long-held perception in its neighbourhood that India is only interested in its smaller neighbours for its own strategic goals. Development projects that address the immediate concerns of the community at large will go some way towards shaping public perceptions about India.
Dr. Vinitha Revi is an Independent Scholar associated with ORF-Chennai. Her PhD was in International Relations and focused on India-UK relations in the post-colonial period. ...Read More +