SPEECH: ADDRESS AT THE SPECIAL SESSION OF PARLIAMENT

It is my very great honour to welcome His Excellency, Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Fiji and, most particularly, to this august house. India is the world’s largest democracy, a nation of 1.2 billion people. It is a very diverse nation that has faced and overcome many challenges—political, economic, ethnic and religious.
But it has never wavered in its embrace of democracy since the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the day it gained its Independence.

Other nations have struggled to define themselves, Fiji among them. Some turned to long-term dictatorship governed by corrupt oligarchies. Others experimented with Marxism and other forms of single-party rule. When many in the developed world openly wondered whether the developing world was prepared for democracy, India proved that a developing country could not only be democratic, but could do so without selling its soul to any bloc. India seized its identity and declared to the world, “We are a democracy, we are a great nation, and we alone will determine our future.”

India is now a rising power in the world, and we are pleased, Your Excellency, that you have included Fiji in this Pacific trip. Of course, Fiji has long-standing ties to India and many Fijians can trace their ancestry to India, or more accurately, British India it was then. These Fijians have played a major part in Fiji’s development, and they make vital contributions today to business, government, education, farming, the arts, and other areas.

But there is more: Fiji and Fijians are playing an increasingly important role in this region and we are proud to contribute international efforts in peacekeeping, development and environmental protection in ways that far exceed expectations for a small nation. We are reaching out to parts of the world that seemed very distant only a few years ago. We are aggressively seeking partners in trade, investment, development, military co-operation, health services and scientific and cultural exchange. We have expertise to offer as well—in tourism development, government reform, sustainability and other areas, and we believe India will be a strong partner.

Your Excellency, today you join us in our newly re-opened and re-invigorated Parliament. It is fitting that the Leader of the world’s greatest democracy should be the first world leader to address the elected representatives of the Fijian people. This Parliament represents a new beginning. It is based on the principle that every citizen of Fiji is equal before the law, that every citizen has an equal voice and equal representation in Parliament, and no citizen should be denied the right to contribute his or her energy and ideas to help build a better Fiji.

There was a time when this Parliament was based on communalism—that is, members of Parliament represented communities, not the people directly. This served to divide the Fijian people and reinforce their communalism rather than unite them. One of the beauties of true democracy is that it encourages people to cross communal boundaries and seek common ground for the greater good. Fijians are now better able to do that, just as Indians and so many other peoples have.

That is not to say that we won’t have disagreements in our Parliament. That is in the nature of society and government. But while elections are all about differences, government after elections should be about finding ways to work for the common good.

We see evidence of that today. Unfortunately, the Opposition has chosen to boycott this session to protest what they mistakenly believe was an attempt to exclude them from these meetings by boycotting this session. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I apologize to you, Prime Minister Modi, on behalf of the people of Fiji, for this inexcusable behaviour, which does not have anything to do with the relations between our countries. It only shows that some of us have some lessons to learn about democracy, statecraft, and nationhood.

Indeed, democracy is not just a formality, a matter of elections and votes. Democracy is a living thing that changes to meet the needs of the people and the demands of modernity. It includes not just political rights, but also economic and social rights—the right to medical care and a healthy environment, the right to work, the right to be equal in marriage and free of domestic violence, the right to housing, clean water, and the other basic amenities of modern life.

Democracy is also based on the belief that ordinary people are capable of doing extraordinary things. Perhaps that is what makes it the world’s best system—because it harnesses the energy and intellect and drive of its people like no other. India has proven that. Today, the world owes a great debt to Indian scientists, doctors, engineers, writers, filmmakers, entrepreneurs and social scientists. There is barely a hospital, a university, or a technology firm of any consequence in the world that has not benefited greatly from the contributions of people from India and their children and grand-children. They bring a strong work ethic, a thirst for learning, an optimistic and adventurous spirit, and a creative mindset. I believe they embody the best of the culture of India and the culture of democracy.

Your own history is an example of what intelligence, drive, discipline and hard work can produce. You were not born to a ruling class. Your parents were grocers in the Ghanchi community, and by the traditions of India and the class structure at the time, no one would have expected you to be the Leader of the nation today. In fact, most would have considered it a fantasy. Yet here you are. It was through the hard work you learned from your parents, and the discipline you learned from your teachers, and the talents and skills that you yourself developed that you became the Leader of 1.2 billion people. That is an inspiration. It is also a testament to the possibilities for change in this world. And it is a lesson: Success breeds success, and everyone who rises up from humble beginnings inspires others. If we establish an environment that makes that possible, then there is no limit to what we can accomplish.
Your Excellency, the world is changing. It is no longer a bipolar world defined by superpower rivalries. It is no longer a world dominated by a few industrialized nations. It is a world in which new powers are rising and in which advances in information technology and transportation have ended the isolation of smaller nations.

Today, Fiji is proud to have helped your country monitor your historic Mars Orbiter Mission when it was launched on 5th November last year. India is the first Asian nation to launch an inter-planetary mission. You reached Mars on your first attempt, and the Indian Space Research Organisation is the fourth space agency to reach Mars. This is no mean feat by any standard. Fiji stands ready to assist you in future missions.

Space exploration was the exclusive domain of just two nations not very long ago. The memories are very fresh for me, Your Excellency, as I’m sure they are for you. We were in awe of the nations who could send men to the moon and satellites into deep space. Today, space travel still amazes, but it is no longer a distant exploit by nations halfway around the world. We are proud that we offer not only our geography, but our infrastructure and our intellectual capital as contributions to India’s space program.

Your Excellency, the entire developing world shares in these achievements, and not just out of some sense of solidarity. The developing world shares in your achievements because they are concrete evidence of what we can achieve if we provide an environment that unleashes the energy and ingenuity of our people, if we embrace equality with all the strength that is in us, if we invest in good government, education, health and social welfare.

Your Excellency, I believe India and Fiji have much to be gained from each other. Your visit opens a new era of co-operation and exchange as we share wisdom and experience in trade, agriculture, science, environmental programs, and national security. And of course, as our democracy matures, we look to India as an example of what the people can achieve if we hold fast to our principles and let the people show us the way.

Your Excellency, welcome to the people’s house, the Fijian Parliament.