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Connection with India vital to Australia’s future

CHOGM As Julia Gillard chairs the Commonwealth Heads of Government in Perth, she would do well to pay special attention to her Indian colleague at the table, Vice-President Hamid Ansari. Brian Stoddart…

Australia would do better to shed light on Indian affairs. Media coverage of the country is dominated by corruption scandals, terrorism or cultural festivals like Diwali. EPA/Sanjeev Gupta

CHOGM As Julia Gillard chairs the Commonwealth Heads of Government in Perth, she would do well to pay special attention to her Indian colleague at the table, Vice-President Hamid Ansari. Brian Stoddart, Emeritus Professor at La Trobe University explains.

Ever since the eruption of violence against Indian students in Melbourne the India-Australia relationship has been under the spotlight. It happens every decade, but this time we have to sit up and take notice.

Attitudes are changing. Education is at the head of the charge, hotly followed by business and the media.

The Australian government, for example, created the Australia India Institute now based at the University of Melbourne. Top think tank the Lowy Institute has initiated an annual Australia-India dialogue. Australian news and media organisations have staff on the ground in India, the Australia India Business Council now sees much more commercial activity than it did before.

But there remains a lingering concern that this might become just another light touch that will soon lose substance at a time when the rest of the world is taking India very much more seriously.

There has been massive Indian investment in Australian coalfields backing up earlier strong investments in Australia’s IT industry.

The iron ore-driven preoccupation with China was reshaped by the dawning awareness of the longer term potential of India, and therein lies a problem – the constant Australian political drive to focus on the immediate at the expense of investing in the future (a general line that Australia’s Vice-Chancellors have driven home about higher education, it might be noted).

Serious approaches

The recent India-USA education dialogue was spearheaded at Prime Minister and President level respectively.

There were over 300 official delegates, all working out how higher education linkages might best be developed to have a wider social and economic impact.

This was no love-in. Delegates on both sides were sceptical and/or critical about such contentious issues as India’s proposed foreign higher education providers bill that, among other things, mandates a US$11 million “start up” licence fee for foreign aspirants.

Last year a Canadian delegation visited India and included something like fourteen university Presidents, a clear indication of Canada’s commitment. N

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key earlier this year spent a full week in India, and worked on issues including higher education.

Low-level Australia

Julia Gillard’s engagement with Indian PM Manmohan Singh has been low-key. AFP/Barbara Walton

By all accounts Australia’s approach is much more low key and less intense.

Things are happening: scholarships, exchanges, science and technology agreements, and individual Australian universities have long seen India as a prime “market” for international fee-paying students, something the Indian body politic did not automatically consider a “good thing”.

Most Australian universities have now broadened their pitch and approach, but many influential Indians still harbour a suspicion that it is all dollar - rather than relationship-driven.

Importantly, though, while the Americans and the Canadians and, indeed the British (there was a strong university contingent in British Prime Minister David Cameron’s India tour group are taking a systemic approach to development, Australia’s still seems stuck at an individualistic, scattered level.

Fragile relationship

The fragile relationship is clear in the media too.

Recent coverage of India in the Australian media has been dominated by matters such as the continuing fallout from the Commonwealth Games corruption investigations (highlighting the fact that Australian contractors have not been paid but paying less attention to the fact that Australia-linked groups are part of the on-going investigations), aspects of terrorism and cultural festivals like Diwali.

It can be argued that Australia is not getting a sustained, cumulative account of developments in India.

Two small examples help make the point.

Any reader of the Indian press will report the constant presence of news about what is called the 2G scam.

Put too simplistically, the Minister in charge of disbursing 2G telecommunications spectrum licences a few years ago was sacked for simply selling them off rather than running a formal auction.

And now allegations that the Home Minister P. Chidambaram might have been involved too, causing discussion at the heart of government.

This is an important leadership issue with policy implications for Australia.

It is no doubt being well tracked in places like DFAT and ONA, but little of it is seen publicly.

Changing India

Locals have celebrated the proposed new state of Telegana, but it could change the face of Indian politics. AFP/STR

And Chidambaram also features in a story which could change the face of politics in India.

Late in 2009 he let slip the union government might consider creating a new state of Telangana, to be carved out of the present southern state of Andhra Pradesh.

Suddenly the leading Congress Party was under pressure. Much of its government base rested with its Andhra Pradesh and many politicians resigned in support of the new state.

For the past two years the argument has raged, and the state has lost billions in productivity to boycotts, demonstrations, rail strikes, school shutdowns, factory closures, power blackouts and constant upheaval. Manmohan Singh’s desperate government is now on the edge of a decision that looks likely to lead to Telangana.

It could lead to a very different political scene in India, exposing tensions that stalk most if not all Indian states, related to history, wealth, the caste system, and natural resources.

Many observers now see that the creation of Telangana is the thin end of the wedge, and believe it will lead to a proliferation of similar transforming the body politic at both regional and national levels.

That may be a long way off but it has a clear resonance for Australia and its relationship with India.

Australia will be much better served if people are given an insight into what is going on there, and engage with it.

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