With PM Tony Abbott’s visit to India, the bilateral relationship is starting to mature
After six decades characterized by misperception, lack of trust, neglect, missed opportunities and even hostility, a new chapter in India’s relations with Australia has well and truly begun.
Consider this: in 1955, Prime Minister Robert Menzies decided that Australia should not take part in the Bandung Afro-Asian conference. By distancing Australia from the ‘new world’, Menzies (who would later confess that Occidentals did not understand India) alienated Indians, offended Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and left Australia unsure, for decades, about its Asian identity.
Sixty years later the visit of another Liberal Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, to India — also the first stand-alone state visit to be hosted by the Narendra Modi government — has well and truly brought the past to a closure. When asked why Australia had agreed to export uranium to India (a non-NPT signatory country), Abbott was unequivocal in his statement: “We trust you!”
No other declaration could reflect the new Australian belief in the promise and potential of this relationship, for it was this deficit of understanding and faith that severely undermined the relationship in the past. Abbott was not alone: he had brought with him some of the most influential Australian businessmen, including Anthony Pratt, who runs the world’s largest paper and paper packaging company, Rio Tinto chief executive Sam Walsh and Lindsey Fox who has one of the most extensive logistics and transport companies in Asia.
Unfortunately, for most of the 20th century, India and Australia rarely had a meaningful conversation. The reasons are not difficult to identify: the white Australia policy, the Cold War, the Nehru-Menzies discord, India’s autarkic economic policies, Canberra’s strident res-ponse to New Delhi’s nuclear tests and attacks on Indian students in Victoria.
Indeed, even after the white Australia policy became history and Australia became one of the most multicultural of nations, opinion surveys reveal most Indians are unaware of this fundamental change. At the popu-lar level the only real exposure most Indians had to Australia was to the Australian cricket team — the least multicultural of institutions.
Even three years ago when — disgusted with the politics of the higher education sector in India — i decided to be the inaugural director of the Australia India Institute at Melbourne, it was seen as a giant leap of faith. I had not visited Australia before and had little knowledge of the country.
My friends warned me that i was literally going “Down Under”, soon to become irrelevant and marginal to all policy issues in India. At school, my teenage daughters were told they risked being bashed up in school and college and my extended family was astounded.
But today i have no doubt that it was one of the best decisions of my life. With not one unpleasant experience in the country, as a family we have found Australians open, friendly, fair, accepting and generous, and the country a model of good governance.
Today there are few countries in the Indo-Pacific which share so much in common in both values and interest than India and Australia, and this is reflected in the 36-para joint statement. From water management to clean energy, to trauma research, to skills and higher education, to maritime and cyber security and counter terrorism, there is a world of opportunities that awaits the two countries if they work in close coordination with each other.
Take just one example: The Economist Intelligence Unit recently voted Australia, after Switzerland, the best country to be born, based on a variety of factors that include access to quality health and education, level of crime, gender equality, resources and political freedom.
Melbourne has been consistently selected as the most livable city and most other Australian cities (including Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth) are in the top 20 in the world. Even given the differences in scale, there are huge lessons in urban planning and living that Australia can offer India.
In November Prime Minister Modi will visit Australia for the G-20 summit. This will be the first bilateral visit by an Indian prime minister in 28 years. It is critical that the political leadership remain in charge of the relationship until it acquires real momentum.
The success of Abbott’s visit was because of the triumvirate in his office — chief of staff Petra Aldrin, senior adviser Andrew Shearer and Joshua Frydenbirg, rising star of the Liberal Party. They helped translate Abbott’s vision into reality. Sections of the Canberra bureaucracy can be niggardly transactional when strong bilateral relations are cemented as much by the world of ideas as they are by the world of commerce.
Similarly, India’s ministry of external affairs, despite the presence of an incisive and thoughtful secretary (East) — Anil Wadhwa — lacks the capacity to give the relationship the attention it deserves. It is critical that the PM creates an Australia Plus cell similarly to the one on Japan in his office.
For the Australia-India bilateral relationship could, handled well, become the most formidable Asian partnership of the 21st century.
(Source: The Times of India)