Tuesday 18 Jun 2024

First Indian-origin Prime Minister of a European nation

Alexandre Moniz Barbosa | SEPTEMBER 09, 2023, 10:18 PM IST
First Indian-origin Prime Minister  of a European nation

Alfredo Nobre da Costa

Long before Antonio da Costa rose to be prime minister of Portugal and got feted in India, there was another individual of Goan origin who served in that position briefly during the 1970s, a little after the dictatorship had been overthrown by the Carnations Revolution. He was Alfredo Nobre da Costa and September 10, 2023 marks his birth centenary.

Nobre da Costa had Goan blood through his father Alfredo Henrique Andresen da Costa, who has been described as having Italian, French, Danish and Goan ancestry. Alfredo’s mother, a Portuguese, was Maria Helena Nobre.

The rather strange description of Henrique Andersen da Costa ancestry is perhaps because Henrique’s father, in this case Alfredo’s grandfather, Bernado Francisco da Costa, was married to an Italian lady.

“He (Nobre da Costa) comes from the family of Bruto da Costa, from Margao, near the Rua Abade Faria, the Travessa de Morgado. There, Antonio Anastasio Bruto da Costa and Bernardo Francisco da Costa founded the newspaper Ultramar in 1959,” Rafael Viegas, the storehouse of information of Goan history from Curtorim, told this writer, cementing the Goan ancestry of Nobre da Costa.

Incidentally, Portugal’s current PM Antonio da Costa has his ancestral house in the same area as that of Nobre da Costa. It is a coincidence that both individuals of Indian and Goan origin who became prime ministers of Portugal share the surname Costa and come from the same neighbourhood of Margao, yet are not related to each other.

Neither did Nobre da Costa get elected as Prime Minister nor did he belong to any party. He was a moderate independent centre-left politician. His assuming charge as prime minister of Portugal was not as that of a popularly-elected government, but being appointed by the President, António Ramalho Eanes, to complete the four-year legislative term that had commenced after the overthrow of the dictatorship in the 1976 Portuguese elections. 

Nobre da Costa came to head a government at a tumultuous time. Adelino Rodrigues da Costa from Lisbon explained that period and said, “In 1978, Portugal was still experiencing some social unrest that had followed the end of the dictatorship and the economic situation was very fragile, with high unemployment, high inflation and a large external imbalance. In 1977, help had been requested from the IMF because there was a risk of the State becoming insolvent.”

Aurobindo Xavier, president of the Lusophone Society of Goa, opining on Nobre da Costa’s government and putting in perspective the political situation of that time, said, “Nobre da Costa stated that he was prime minister in a transitional government and that he was therefore extremely limited in his actions by party forces and by the constraints of a socialist constitution that emerged from the 1974 Revolution. But on the other hand, his government was positioned within a political framework that aimed to establish a transition in order to define more individual freedom and carry out social reforms and put an end to political instability. Nobre da Costa suddenly found himself at the very centre of a project for change, at the start of a new dynamic aimed at creating economic and social conditions in a state governed by the rule of law.’

Reports in the Goa newspapers of that time, this writer sourced, quote Nobre da Costa on assuming charge as saying that he would act “pragmatically and with determination in dealing with the nation’s pressing economic and other problems”.

Himself an Independent, Nobre da Costa’s cabinet consisted of other independents and consequently failed to gain a majority in the Portuguese Parliament, leading to his resignation. He served as Prime Minister for under three months from August 28, 1978 to November 22 of the same year. It was a period during which Portugal saw many governments until the political situation stabilised a couple of years later.

Rodrigues da Costa, a name many in Goa may recognise as he served in Goa as delegate of the Fundação Oriente, added, “The political parties did not understand each other. So, faced with this situation of non-understanding and ungovernability, the President of the Republic, António Ramalho Eanes, decided to choose a Prime Minister to form a government. It was called a “presidential initiative government” and he chose Nobre da Costa to head it.” His was the third constitutional government that was formed when the government of Mario Soares fell, following differences between the alliance partners PS and CDS.

Incidentally, Eanes also had a Goa connection, having served in the Portuguese army in Goa a little before Liberation. “It’s worth pointing out to Goan readers that Ramalho Eanes, at the start of his military career in 1958, began a series of service commissions outside Portugal, in the former colonies, the first of which was in Goa, where he stayed from May 1958 to August 1960,” Xavier said.

The government of Nobre da Costa was too short lived to make an assessment. “Since the 1974 revolution there have been about 15 prime ministers in Portugal in addition to military governments. Considering that Nobre da Costa, held the position of Prime Minister of Portugal only for 85 days, he practically did not come to govern. In any country you can’t make an assessment of a government that has been in office for 85 days. But I would say that he did retain a good image in public opinion, due to his management skills and governmental action that he had demonstrated previously when he was Minister of Industry and Technology in 1976 and Secretary of State for Heavy Industry in the governments of 1975-1976,” Xavier said.

However, Rodrigues da Costa supported the initiatives of Nobre da Costa. He said, “He was not politically aligned and was a highly qualified and reputed manager. As required by the Constitution, he took his programme to Parliament, but the members did not pass it. It was a case of “political blindness” or “partisan irrationality”. Nobre da Costa was a democrat, an intelligent and moderate man, and the country needed someone to get the economy going. However, partisan interests prevailed over the interests of the country and Nobre da Costa almost never managed to govern.”

There can only be speculation on what Nobre da Costa could have done, had his government got support. Putting that period into perspective, Xavier said, “Between 1976 and 1985, Portugal experienced a period of strong political instability, i.e. parliamentary minority or coalition governments. The instability that began with the approval of the Constitution in 1976 and foresaw a transition to socialism that ended in 1977, when the process of Portugal joining the EEC (European Economic Community), the predecessor of today’s European Union, began. In this turbulent political context, we couldn’t have expected more from Nobre de Costa’s very short government. The generalised political intention was for governments to increase austerity in order to maintain a balance between the economic and social spheres without causing political upheaval. In these terms, Nobre da Costa had neither the possibility nor the political conditions for a long-term government. The years that followed were therefore a clear attempt at “national reconciliation”, recovering the productive apparatus broken down by the decolonisation process and establishing a law regulating fundamental rights, a law delimiting the public and private sectors and implementing the difficult Agrarian Reform Law. Nobre da Costa also acted skilfully in all this.”

In Goa, news of Nobre da Costa’s appointment as Prime Minister was received with delight. “His appointment as Prime Minister was well reported in the Goan newspapers of that time, stating that he was a Goan and originally from Margao. Earlier he was a minister. He was well known in those circles and was appointed a minister,” Viegas recalled. 

In Portugal too Goans were pleased with the nomination. Elvidio de Menezes, a Goan settled in Portugal said, “It was with much pride that I heard the news of the nomination of Nobre da Costa as prime minister. Any Goan should feel proud when another Goan advances to high positions in Portugal.”

A mechanical engineer by profession, Nobre da Costa was chairman of EFACEC, an engineering company, when he died in 1996. 

Not just the prime minister, but the family of Nobre da Costa was not unrecognised in Portugal. Xavier explained that the grandfather of Nobre de Costa, Manuel Vicente Alfredo da Costa who was born in Margao in 1859 and died in 1910 in Portugal, better known as Alfredo da Costa, was a famous doctor and professor of Medicine, pioneer of obstetrics in Portugal. “He is remembered in the name of the most famous Maternity Hospital in Portugal, the Alfredo da Costa Maternity Hospital in Lisbon, inaugurated in 1932. Since its inauguration and until 2005, more than 540,000 Portuguese children were born at the Dr Alfredo da Costa Maternity Hospital,” Xavier said.

Nobre da Costa may not be remembered in India and Goa, but he definitely holds the label of being the first Indian-origin PM of a European country.

Share this