Indian President comes calling

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PAWAN LUTHRA, NEHA MALUDE, SIMMI SINGH and RAJNI ANAND LUTHRA report

Bharat mata ki jai! 

The cry went up from the crowds at Parramatta NSW just as the President of India Ram Nath Kovind took to the microphone to begin his address.

“I find much similarity between (the terms) ‘Bharat mata’ and ‘Parramatta’,” the President said, as the crowd erupted again.

That clever way with words popped up frequently enough during the President’s visit to Australia to impress the audiences.

The crowd’s more than warm reception of India’s head of state might have given the host nation some idea of the regard with which the mild-mannered and gently spoken man is held in his country.

There were no Modi-like histrionics or flashy kurtas, and while the mannerisms may have been gentle, the message repeatedly conveyed was strong and clear: let’s take this bilateral relationship to the next level, there’s plenty in it for both of us.

In anticipation, the Australian government finally endorsed the India Economic Strategy report that it commissioned Peter Varghese to write in July 2018, and announced its in-principle support to its 20 priority recommendations.

Besides his official one-on-ones with the Governor General Peter Cosgrove, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten and Defence Minister Marise Payne, the President met with the expat Indian and the business communities in large numbers.


Gandhi statue unveiling

At Parramatta, hundreds of Indians gathered at Jubilee Park to see him unveil the statue of Mahatma Gandhi, the best-known Indian in the world. Standing alongside PM Scott Morrison, the missive here was really two-pronged: one, that the Government of India values its diaspora – “a living bridge,” as the President described; and two, that the Government in Australia values its own migrant constituents.

The President said, “This statue – an initiative of the city council – symbolises the bond that ties our nations together. Going forward, I’m optimistic that our two countries, which share so much in common, can achieve so much together.”

Mr. Morrison said about the Mahatma, “His message is not a whisper of the past, but a teaching embedded in the hearts of millions around the world.”

He added, “Numerous Australian PMs from Menzies to Turnbull have laid wreaths in his honour at Rajghat and paid their respects, and now we have the opportunity to do that right here in Parramatta.”

The President gifted a book titled Hind Swaraj to the Prime Minister and the Lord Mayor of Parramatta Andrew Wilson, a book written by Gandhi in 1909.

 

High Commission of India reception

In stark contrast to the Parramatta event, the reception hosted by the High Commission of India was much more subdued, and steeped in formality. Some 300 invited guests from across the country gathered to welcome the President to Australia. As he wished his compatriots belatedly for Diwali, and for Milad Un Nabi and Gurupurab, he expressed satisfaction at the manner in which they have adapted to their karmabhoomi, and invited increased engagement with their land of birth.

In an unusual ritual, members of the audience were invited in small batches up on stage to be photographed with the President. (Perhaps this was sparked after the swarm of selfie-hunters impeded proceedings somewhat at the 2014 visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.)

 

AFR and AIBC

At two business events – the Australian Financial Review India Business Summit and the Australia India Business Council’s annual India Address – the President invited Australia to benefit from India’s growth story.
“In recent years, India has renewed its commitment to a liberal, transparent and globalised economy,” he pointed out.

He added that India has reached the top league in terms of openness to foreign investors, and listed a variety of sectors that have thrown open their doors to global players, including aviation, mining and defence production.

India is in the midst of an “infrastructure push of unusual urgency”, he detailed, as it constructs highways, rolls out broadband, creates new railway and freight corridors, upgrades ports and high-speed train networks, expands air connectivity and industrial corridors.

He also pointed out that India’s growth is different from that of many others. “We are the first major country that is seeking to make that leap into industrialisation while also combating climate change, and while reducing the intensity of dependence on fossil fuels,” he said. “India has set a target of 175 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2022, of which 100 gigawatts will comprise solar energy, and is on course to exceed the target.”

While India’s digital economy, its e-commerce companies, its technology start-ups and its fin-tech innovators are attracting foreign direct investment, he said Australia seems missing in the India investment story.

“This is a gap we need to address. Australia and India have too much at stake in each other to not up their game,” he said.

Kovind said the Australian super-funds or pension funds will find Indian infrastructure space worthy.

“Let us put our heads together and create investment products that work for Australian super-funds and Indian infrastructure, and for Australian pensioners and Indian consumers, and that lead to a win-win situation,” he said.

India-Australia trade, valued at $21 billion in 2018, has grown but remains below potential, he said, adding that India is positively engaging in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and will contribute to its conclusion by 2019.

Kovind also said the two countries shared the vision for peace and prosperity of a free, open and rules-based Indo-Pacific Region.

“There is a world of opportunities waiting for you in India,” the President concluded. “I hope to see more mates and mateship between the business communities of Australia and India.”


Dinner at Manjit’s

The President Mr Kovind, First Lady Savita Kovind and their daughter spent a relaxed evening at leading Indian restaurant Manjit’s at the Wharf. (Indian Link believes this was a request from the President himself).

The high-profile visitor and his entourage were treated to a specially designed menu by Manjit’s staff, including tandoori fish malai, tandoori aloo, dal bhat tikka, Balmain bug curry, kaju ki sabzi, goat curry and vegetable biryani.

Part of the restaurant was closed off to regular diners.


The University of Melbourne

At the University of Melbourne, the President delivered a lecture titled ‘Australia and India as knowledge partners’.

The special public lecture event was organised by the university’s Australia India Institute led by CEO and Director Professor Craig Jeffrey.

The President opened his address by congratulating the university for living up to its founding motto Postera Crescam Laude which means, ‘We shall grow in the esteem of future generations’.

“Our ever-growing knowledge partnership has happened principally through two streams: education cooperation and scientific collaboration,” said the President.

Whilst this has worked well, he said, the ambit can be expanded with more knowledge areas to work on.

“Australia ranks the second most preferred destination for Higher Education for Indian students,” he said. “Today, there are close to 85,000 Indian students in various parts of Australia. Over 1500 Australians have studied and completed internships in India in last few years.”

The President was happy that the two governments have rightly identified education as a priority area for bilateral cooperation and it has been chosen as the flagship sector for Australia in the India Economic Strategy.

Speaking of the knowledge engagement through scientific collaboration and research, he noted that Australia is among the top five research partner countries for India. During his visit both countries announced a renewed commitment of $10 million dollars each towards the Australia-India Strategic Research Fund.

“As mega-bio-diverse countries, both India and Australia can enrich the world with bio-genomic wealth and improve agriculture and human health. Our scientists and experts can together develop climate change adaption strategies and innovative ways to manage the environment,” said the President.

He noted that as an oceanic culture, Australia is known for its understanding and expertise in marine ecology and blue economy. Australia and India are thus collaborating under the Indian Ocean Rim Association framework.

On the other hand India’s strength lies in space technology, cyber security, traditional medicine and basic research and India can provide new synergy to scientists and researchers in Australia.

The President also touched upon the promising area of partnership between the two in the field of sports beyond cricket.

“Your sporting expertise can help us develop sports medicine, sports management and a sporting way of life. On our side, we are ever ready to share with you how to bring the balance of Yoga to the pace of Australian Rules Football.”

As part of his engagements in Melbourne the President visited Government House where the Governor of Victoria, Ms Linda Dessau, held a luncheon banquet in his honour.

Leader of the Opposition in Australia Mr Bill Shorten also briefly called on the Indian President. They discussed the strength of the bilateral relationship and a shared desire to enhance it further across multiple sectors including economic, trade, skills development, education and cultural links.

Shorten and Kovind

The President’s much-anticipated visit to the MCG to witness the India-Australia T20 match live was unfortunately cancelled due to inclement weather.


Back to cricket and curry

Cricket analogies abounded across President Kovind’s speeches. He urged Australian businesses to take heed from batsmen who do well on India’s pitches. “They show patience, they study the conditions. They form good partnerships, and they do not get taken in by the spin,” he observed as attendees at the AFR summit burst into laughter.

If it was cricket for Kovind, it was food for Sco-Mo: the garam masala analogy was recounted yet again, and may well be a good analogy to describe multiculturalism, but might just be a bit too hot to handle for the tastebuds of many in the mainstream.

More interesting was the PM’s reprisal of a predecessor from years ago, Alfred Deakin, who “to use his phrase, ‘spread his sails to catch India’s breeze’ … (and) fell in love with and wrote two books about India before he became prime minister; the complexities, contradictions, colours, faiths, architecture and vibrancy of India captivated him. He returned to Australia as an evangelist for the opportunities for India.”

Deakin had predicted way back in 1893, that education could be an avenue to bring India and Australia closer

125 years after the potential was realised, will Kovind’s visit to Australia – and Peter Cosgrove’s upcoming return visit to India – see Australia finally spread its sails widely enough to catch India’s breeze?