India at 75: Opportunities for Australia
By Mark Pierce
Anniversaries usually provide occasion to look backwards rather than forwards, to celebrate great achievements together, simple longevity or good fortune. As we approach on 17 August the 75th anniversary of its “Freedom at Midnight”, India’s leaders will likely echo Nehru’s plea to his compatriots “to work hard to give reality to our dreams”. While India’s past 75 years offer much cause for celebration, in India and around the world, there remains a lot of work to do before India’s national dreams become reality.
Australia’s relations with India extend for both a longer and shorter time than August 1947. India established a Trade Office in Sydney in 1941, while Australia installed its first High Commissioner in 1944, with an initial visit by an Australian Prime Minister only three years after independence.
That formal chronology, however, does not do justice to the ancient geography which linked the two countries in Gondwanaland, to the durability of trade links (from the First Fleet onwards), to the scattered efforts of early Indian settlers in Australia, or to the countries’ shared commitments and sacrifices in two world wars.
Nonetheless, the common – and correct – consensus judgment in both countries is that we have never done enough together. We did not know each other as well as we should. We did not capitalise or rely on each other’s strengths. We lacked resilience and follow-through when confronted with setbacks.
For years we in Australia awkwardly characterised relations with India in terms of “the three Cs: cricket, curry and the Commonwealth”. Cricket was not always the sunny good news story we pretended it was. Australian curry was long a travesty of the richness and diversity in Indian cooking. As for the Commonwealth, the purpose and level of our engagement remained quite divergent.
Too often the relationship seems to have comprised a series of false dawns and first dates. For many of those eight decades both India and Australia looked elsewhere for guarantees of their security, the sources and resources which underpin economic dynamism, and the social and cultural exchanges which enrich and enliven other relationships.
Even now Australia’s trade and investment ties with India are swamped by those with China. India’s “look East” policy, establishment of the Quad, talk about the “Indo-Pacific” and participation in some joint military exercises are only a scaffolding from which joint security interests may develop. Similarly, conclusion of a CECA, one necessarily late and limited, will initially bolster confidence more than either nation’s trade figures.
Our references to “shared values” sometimes read like simple shorthand for democratic elections or code for reservations about China. Maintaining a “comprehensive strategic partnership” should entail continuous improvement, taking the form of examining how to make the partnership ever more comprehensive (wide-ranging) and strategic (forward-looking).
In this anniversary of Indian independence, we should emancipate ourselves from past habits and reflex responses. We need to do something new. We do not need one grand gesture; sugar hits and fireworks will change nothing. Nor do we need to agree to everything India might want, whether that he exclusions in a CECA or alignment with its views on Pakistan. Over-emphasising the significance of any one project would be an unforced error. As importantly, we should not be sentimental. Despite Bollywood, India might be the least sentimental country in the world.
Though custom may not be the best guide, we would conventionally consider a Prime Ministerial visit, preferably one each way during the course of the year. Such trips can provide useful leverage for pushing initiatives through the two government systems, expanding or accelerating work under way, placing Prime Ministers’ imprimatur on developments, or re-badging plans to make them appear more coherent or purposeful.
A wider government-to-government framework might suit our interests better. 2+2 meetings of Foreign and Defence Ministers try to blend piecemeal defence co-operative projects with overviews of current regional issues. Australia and India might accord a higher priority to meetings of economic Ministers, who run into each other at sessions of G20 Finance Ministers but otherwise have limited contact. The first dividend of talking regularly and candidly would be realising just how much there is to talk about.
That lesson applies just as well to other Ministries. Once all Cabinet Ministers were encouraged to visit PNG. They have needed no encouragement to go to China. If each Australian Cabinet Minister took the time to visit India, travelled well beyond New Delhi, briefed themselves thoroughly on areas of possible joint work, the government would be happily surprised by the dividends which accrued.
Supporting Indian membership of APEC is settled Australian policy, but we need to consider ways in which APEC norms and standards could be used to help remove some of the more anachronistic restrictions and regulations constraining India’s economy.
Central government schemes, whether directed from Canberra or New Delhi, can only achieve so much. Many of the sectors where we have good prospects for practical, mutually beneficial co-operation must be managed between States. The matters which most concern citizens day to day – education, training, health, infrastructure, jobs -are State responsibilities in India as in Australia. One path to India runs through New Delhi, but others would take Australians to Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bengalaru, Kolkata and Ahmedabad. Work together might build on links with smart energy grids and water management. Projects already under way might benefit from economies of scale and a more systematic approach.
Over the years Australian States have drafted a series of separate India strategies, nominating prospective sectors, setting a few targets, expressing good intentions. These plans need to be integrated, not subordinated to a Commonwealth plan/partnership but rather seen as one leading edge of government-to-government collaboration. At the federal level, another promising field would be exchanges with two truly great Indian national institutions, those which manage the census and conduct elections.
In an anniversary year, we also need to offer India something of ourselves, something inimitably Australian. We can draw on a couple of precedents.
Australian cricketers used to treat India warily as a distant and hostile land, where the weather was too hot, pitches too spin-friendly, crowds too raucous and food too foreign. Playing in the IPL – competing and travelling with Indians all over India – has changed that mind-set. So, too, have those Australian cricketers, among them Steve Waugh and Brett Lee, who have taken “deep dives” into India. After all, any partnership first involves listening and learning.
“MasterChef Australia” enjoyed huge success, despite the fact that not too many middle class Indian families actually cook their own dinners, let alone experiment with non-Indian cuisines. With cooking as elsewhere, India, itself a boundless source of surprises, needs to be surprised by what Australia has to offer.
We could do that by enlarging the reach of the new Colombo Plan both up and down. An upwards extension would support joint post-doctoral research projects, starting with two fields of mutual strength, astronomy and meteorology. The downwards reach could include school exchanges, regular virtual seminars, as well as quiz or debating contests between schools. Our best teachers could be encouraged (and subsidised) to spend some of their holidays teaching in India. One other essential step would be to set up ways to encourage Indian students to spend time with Australian families in Australian homes. Nobody can come to know Australia just by studying, living and eating with other Indian students.
In high culture, we could concentrate on the bedrock of literature in the two countries, the novel. Another literary train trip for novelists would be one idea, a joint literary prize for best novel of the year another, new editions of classics readily available in bookshops a third, a television program on what novels can teach us about life and culture a fourth. The ABC has already made an excellent start with books which made Australia. As for non-fiction, one obvious contrast is the hyper-abundance of books on China in Australian bookstores and the dearth of much that is current and relevant on India. One related move would be to associate the exceptional Jaipur literary festival with the Adelaide festival.
Reading each others’ novels should not exhaust our interest. There is scope for an exhibition on the remarkable overlaps between Indigenous art in Australia and India. Modern technology would enable us to stage an intriguing exhibition on Gondwanaland, the realm from which both India and Australia emerged. An annual lecture series – not a one-off (many such already exist), but talks grouped around a theme like the Boyer lectures – could help define the challenges both countries confront. We should also find more ways to take advantage of the enormous asset we have in the Indian community in Australia.
Business investment will supply one indispensable motor for bilateral relations. Meetings between key CEOs, with guaranteed access to government for de-briefings and follow-up, are critical. The past record of the CEO forum demonstrates that point. Australian business needs to adopt with India the judgment they have made about China: we cannot afford not to be there. Businesses are as yet nowhere near that point. With business more than any other sectors, the lessons about resilience, patience, not giving up, not expecting too much too soon, need to be re-learned.
In all these exchanges, we enjoy the inestimable advantage of being easily understood by each other. English colonialism left a distinctly mixed record, in Australia as in India, but did enable us both to talk and write in English. Simple, direct, nuanced conversation makes it easier to listen and to learn. We just need to add the will to do so.