Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi have braved their arduous political journeys to the top, defying insurmountable domestic odds to head their respective governments. As they meet each other they can create lasting legacies by moving beyond the grand-sounding strategic partnership rhetoric of the yore and working on the tangibles that could potentially change the lives of millions in India.
It would take little time for Abbott to sense that the future of India-Australia relations hinges not so much on their strategic cooperation in the international sphere, as on how meaningfully can Australia help India deal with its enormous human development challenges, including poverty alleviation, better health and sanitation facilities, improved higher and vocational education for its youthful population and securing water, energy and food security.
In all likelihood Modi would also value the ground realities of giving India’s human development and governance needs precedence over defence and security matters in bilateral discussions, and justifiably so, as the nation expects him to deliver on these counts first. Therefore, for Abbott and his team it is matter of blending India’s priorities with Australia’s quest for opportunities in India.
Abbott arrives at the heels of an upswing in bilateral relations that will allow him to argue a case for Australia’s and more so the Liberal Party’s long-term commitment to stable and stronger ties with India.
First, the original decision to supply uranium by John Howard’s government and now Abbot signing the nuclear safeguards agreement to enable Australian companies to sell uranium to India, will remove one long-sticking impediment to bilateral ties.
Second, the other sticky issue—the safety of India students in Australia—is already witnessing a positive trend. With tightened visa rules and crackdown against dodgy institutions and immigration agents at both ends, Indian students’ enrolment in higher degree programmes in Australian universities has risen to over 4,000 in 2013, marking a 7.3% increase in visa lodgements from previous years.
Third, Modi is also mindful that in the wake of the 2002 Gujarat riots when the US and Europe targeted his government, Australia chose to act otherwise and never denied him entry. Modi as the Chief Minister visited Australia in 2004 at the invitation of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Fourth, Australia’s long-continuing engagement in Gujarat would also be a bonus for Abbott who is expected to extend Modi the formal invitation to elevate his forthcoming visit to Australia for the G-20 Summit in November in Brisbane, into a full-fledged State visit, ending India’s self-imposed moratorium on prime ministerial visits since 1986.
And fifth, as Australia increasingly looks towards India to replace China as its top energy export destination, it would reveal that India is no more a ‘blind-spot’ in the Australian foreign policy calculus. Several recent government reports including Ken Henry’s January 2013 report entitled, ‘Australia in the Asian Century White Paper 2012’ have delved into the need for adding ballast to engagements with India in the Asian century.
Abbott’s visit is laced with appreciation for India for accepting the Tamil refugees who had recently arrived from India on the Australian shores, and could not be sent back to Sri Lanka for fear of prosecution. “Stopping the boats’ has been one of Abbott’s key election promises and a fiery debate issue both in the parliament and in public space.
Abbott and his team would do well to emphasize that Australia has been engaged in India on multiple fields for many years which are now bearing fruition. Many bilateral initiatives, much larger in scale and scope, are emanating from states as well. Recently, the Gujarat Chief Minister Anandiben Patel extended an invitation to Australia to participate in the biennial Vibrant Gujarat Global Investors Summit in 2015 as a ‘partner country’ and delegation of businessmen and entrepreneurs is expected to visit Australia soon facilitated by the Australia Indian Business Council to explore commercial and trade opportunities. Australia’s Commercial Minister and Senior Trade and Investment Commissioner for South Asia Nicola Watkinson visited Gujarat in June to boost cooperation in mining, diary, fishery, agriculture, mineral resources, energy and sports among other areas.
Modi fully understands that given its rapidly growing population’s needs, middle class aspirations and widening industrial base, ensuring uninterrupted energy supplies holds the key to India’s growth. India’s heavy reliance on oil and gas imports from the Gulf and West Asia is perennially laden with uncertainties and there is a long-pressing need for diversifying energy sources to meet future demands. Much of India’s electricity generation depends on coal which is environmentally unsustainable as well, and that is why soon uranium will be thrown into the mix to augment nuclear-based power generation.
In addition, India needs to tap its full potential in the renewable energy (RE) sector which suffers from various impediments such as substandard goods manufactured by overnight manufacturers’, under-developed research and designing, lack of public awareness and inadequate private investment. India’s RE sector is an attractive market destination for Australian companies to provide RE based electricity to remote areas. Australia has made significant advancement in wind energy, SPVs, solar hot water, waste-to-energy conversion and hydro-power systems which can be of immense utility to India’s future energy requirements and help fulfil Modi’s promise of 24×7 electricity for all.
Australia’s Direct Aid Programme (DAP) has made successful inroads, providing small financial support for small-scale sustainable development projects in several states including Goa, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Karnataka, Kerela, Puducherry and Tamil Nadu. Under the programme Australia has funded numerous projects including establishing vocational training centres; undertaking solar power and end-user training and electrification of hundreds of households; facilitating construction of diversion based irrigation; contributing to women’s economic empowerment; providing access to education for women and girls, etc. These initiatives complement Modi’s vision for better governance and development quite fittingly.
There is also enormous scope for bilateral cooperation in internal security, including home-grown terrorism that poses a serious existential threat to both countries. Griffith University based Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security has just signed a Memorandum of Understanding in July 2014 with the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Police Academy to strengthen policing and security cooperation through research collaboration and academic-practitioner interaction and capacity building programmes. Discussions are also underway between CEPS and the National Investigation Agency and the Central Bureau of Investigation to reach similar MoUs to develop capacities in counter-terrorism and forensic investigations, community policing, dealing with transnational and organised crimes, and corruption—including sports corruption. The establishment of the Australian Federal Police office in New Delhi in 2010 symbolizes converging national security interests and growing realization for cooperation to safeguard communities and borders.
Australia can also contribute to Modi’s resolve to clean the Ganges and help deliver one of his election promises in his constituency, Varanasi. Australia has regularly participated in the Swatcha Ganga Chhatra Sangam at Tulsi Ghat which brings youth from schools in India and volunteers from Australia for the cause. The initiative was a joint venture mooted in 1992 between Oz green, an Australian NGO and the Sankat Mochan Foundation, previously headed by the Late Veer Bhadra Mishra. Cleaning the Ganges remains a top priority for Modi and the two sides can not only rejuvenate this initiative but also reach a Kyoto-Varanasi type understanding to clean the Ganges and help realizing the creation of 100 smart cities across India.
The scope for future cooperation are enormous wherein India’s needs and Australia’s search for market access and trade opportunities can be harmonized to mutual advantages. Modi realises all too well that five years down the road, his government will not be judged against the successes in the foreign policy sphere but whether he has delivered “good days” to the people as he had promised. Be it Japan, US or China, Modi’s vision is to engage globally to deliver locally. Australia fits quite nicely into this framework.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.
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