A ready-made understanding of India

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Pawan Luthra talks with Harinder Sidhu, Australia’s High Commissioner-designate to India

Pawan Luthra: Ms Sidhu, welcome to Indian Link.

Harinder Sidhu: Thank you Pawan, I’m so delighted to be here.

Harinder Sidhu.Indian Link

PL: Ms Sidhu, let’s begin by talking trade. Two-way trade between Australia and India has been stagnant at about $15 billion for several years and has been very narrow in its scope. Australia does over $150 billion worth of trade with China. In your experience, what are the reasons that these two countries, India and Australia, have just not got off the starting blocks?

HS: I’d like to challenge the sense that we have stagnant trade. Two-way trade – if you include services – is sitting at about $18 billion a year at the moment. That compares to $6.5 billion in 2006, 10 years ago, so it has been tripling in value terms in that time. There’s a long way that we can still go. For Australia, I still think that India is a developing market.

There is quite a bit of interest in India by Australian companies, but obviously these things take time to establish.

India is obviously a different market to China. We do supply a great deal of raw material and resources, coal, raw materials to India, and the trade is starting to diversify in a number of areas.

One of the areas I’m very happy to see trade grow quite strongly is the services sector. We often think about goods passing from one country to another, but in fact what we are doing is delivering quite a bit of services to India particularly in education and tourism. So I do see it as quite a prospective market.

PL: In the past, India has looked towards Europe and the US for business whereas Australia leans towards China. Why hasn’t India been in the line of vision?

HS: There are two things. China has been very dominant for Australian businesses over the past few years and has always been quite high in terms of consciousness. There’s a highly developed set of relationships with China.

I think in recent years, particularly with the Modi government, India has really reached out far beyond its traditional markets and traditional shores. We are starting to see an India that is more confident, an India that’s engaging much more with the outside world, with other countries. India is a country growing in its region and there is a growing interest in India that has since come together in terms of the shared set of interests that Australia has. For example, in the Indian Ocean Co-operation, which is very strong at the moment.

Those shared interests, and the growing Indian population in Australia, all those things drive greater links which actually draw up the economic and trade relationship. We have a very solid base at the moment to build trade relationships going forward.

Harinder Sidhu.Indian Link

PL: In November 2014, when Prime Ministers Modi and Abbott met here in Australia, they set a time frame of about a year to finalise the FTA between the two countries. You recently commented that has been delayed. Where do you see the FTA at the moment?

HS: The thing to remember about the FTA, which we’re calling the Comprehensive Economic Corporation Agreement, CECA for short, is that there is an incredibly strong political commitment by Australia and by India in negotiating that document.

What I was trying to say is not that it has been delayed for any particular reason, it is just that this a very complex negotiation. There are a lot of technical issues that have to be resolved, and both countries are negotiating very well. There is a lot of to and fro underway all the time behind the scenes and we are working as hard as we can to get the agreement in place as soon as we can.

Once we have the CECA in place, we have another element that provides a strong foundation for growing the Australia-India trade and investment relationship. We are very conscious of that so both sides are working very hard to make sure this is the best quality agreement we can negotiate at this time.

PL: Is there a timeline?

HS: I don’t think either side is inclined to put a time frame on this at the moment. If you want to get a good outcome, you can’t try to rush it in any way. It has to take the time that it needs to take, and all I can say is we are working very hard and very rapidly through these negotiations so I’m reasonably optimistic that we will have the negotiations concluded reasonably soon, but I can’t give you a specific time frame.

PL: Ashok Malik, a foreign affairs analyst with the Australian India Institute, has said that the tightening relationship between Canberra and New Delhi is very much aimed at creating a counter way to the rise of China. Any comments on that?

HS: I don’t think it is particularly useful to think of alliances between two countries or partnerships between two countries as being pitched against a third country. Australia doesn’t see things that way and in my conversations with Indian counterparts, I don’t think India sees things that way. We’re partnering with each other to take forward out bilateral relationships and improve the strategic ability in our regions.

We have a shared interest in our region and that is not about China or any one country, it’s about a range of countries that we are working with. I would reject that notion that we are trying to counterbalance China or counterbalance another country. This is a genuine bilateral partnership that is growing on a number of levels and we are taking forward in a very constructive way.

Harinder Sidhu.Indian Link
Harinder Sidhu and Deputy Consul-General for South India, Jon Bonnar from Australian Consulate-General, Chennai visiting IIT Madras

PL: India has made no secret of its desire to be a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Australia is well aware of this. Will Australia give India its support when the time comes?

HS: Australia has been supporting India’s desire to be a permanent member of the Security Council pretty much from the time India has declared that interest. We have been very strong proponents of UN Security Council reform, and UN reform more generally, to be more representative of the world as it is today.

PL: As Australian High Commissioner-designate to India, Harinder Sidhu can you share with us the milestones you would like to achieve during your tenure in India?

HS: I have a number of milestones I would like to meet. One is obviously the increasing of the economic relationship. I would very much like to see the CECA negotiations concluded, and I would like to see greater and more diverse trade in investment relationships between our two countries.

Very closely related to that is education. More than 46,000 Indians are studying in Australia at the moment and that number is growing veryrapidly. There is still quite a bit of a scope to expand the education relationship, and not just in higher education, but also in vocational education and I would like to see that grow and improve.

Finally, the political military and strategic relationship which really is what builds trust and confidence between two countries. That’s taken quite an increase in terms of scope and depth in the last few years. We recently have a visit by the Australian chief of army to India and we are hoping a reciprocal visit from the Indian chief of army to Australia.

We have had joint military and naval exercises recently and so all those things suggest two countries working together with a shared sense of security, and a shared objective and trust and confidence in each other and that’s what I would love to see grow while I am here as well.

Harinder Sidhu.Indian Link
Harinder Sidhu is presented with a Spirit of India Run shirt by ultra marathon runner Pat Farmer on his arrival in New Delhi

PL: How do you think people of Indian origin living in Australia can contribute to deepening the relationship between the two countries?

HS: There are many ways in which they can contribute and there are many ways in which they are contributing. One of the things I think Indians in Australia and Australians in India can do, is continue the role of building connections between the two countries. Good relationships between two countries come from a shared understanding about each other.

There is nobody better who can interpret India to Australians than people of Indian origin themselves. Each country has ideas about what the other country is like, but we all know that Australia is a much more sophisticated and nuanced country than your average Indian might think, and India is a more sophisticated and nuanced country than your average Australian might think.

Deepening that understanding is something that Indians in Australia can bring to Australians’ understanding and knowledge about India. We do that already through cultural events that go on in Australia such as Parramasala and I think that those should continue. Business links and other links can also form a very solid network and a basis for the growth and relationship going forward.

PL: That’s a fantastic segue for us to learn a little bit more about you! You are of Indian origin and I understand your father is from Punjab. When was the last time you visited India prior to this posting?

HS: I have made a few business trips to India over the years, but the last trip was in 2011 with my family. We did a tour of India, visiting Mumbai, Amritsar, Delhi, Jaipur and Agra. It was a wonderful holiday and I was very keen to come back!

PL: Do you still have family in India?

HS: I don’t actually. My father was born in India but left as a young boy. We have extended family in India but I don’t know them very well. Most of my family are now in Australia, and most of my extended family and certainly my direct family are there, and I have some family in Singapore and Malaysia. As you know, I was born in Singapore myself.

PL: What do you find different about India, considering you haven’t grown up there?

HS: That’s a good question. I have travelled widely and I have been to India before, so coming to Delhi this time was not a surprise. In many ways, India feels very familiar to me.  Obviously there are differences with Australia and things that you recognise in a country that is still very poor but developing rapidly. The population for example. There are just people everywhere! When you come from Canberra as I do, there is a very big difference.

But the other thing that I have really noticed is the dramatic rate of development. I think India has come a very long way. Delhi is much more dynamic and a vibrant place now than I recall it even six years ago.

Harinder Sidhu.Indian Link
Celebrating IWD in Chennai

PL: Have you gone out in Delhi yet – trying out the restaurants or shopping?

HS: Absolutely! I have been having a wonderful time. I haven’t done as much shopping as I would like, but I have done some sightseeing and I am discovering very interesting parts of Delhi. I went on a walking tour of Hauz Khas a few weeks ago. It was a fascinating area for me, I had never realised it. I went on a tour of the old monuments, but we finished up in the village, and went to cafes and it was a wonderful experience and really I saw another side of the city that people wouldn’t ordinarily think of Delhi, so there’s plenty to explore.

PL: What similarities, if any, do you see between the people and the culture?

HS: I think the biggest similarity is that we are both warm and informal people. Indians and Australians share a great sense of fun and a great enjoyment of life. And that’s why we connect so well!

PL: Now, some advice from you. The current Australian Ambassador to Israel is part Indian and of course we have had Peter Varghese in your position. What would be your advice to young Indian-Australians who want a career in the diplomatic services?

HS: My advice would be to just go for it.  I joined the Australian Foreign Affairs Department 29 years ago, and as you rightly say, we have had a number of ambassadors of Indian origin. There is no impediment, and in fact if anything young Indian Australians are highly qualified and would be very competitive if they were to apply and I would certainly encourage them to.

There is a great advantage in coming to diplomacy with a ready-made understanding of cross-cultural relationships. It’s what our jobs are all about and my colleagues are drawn from a very diverse set of backgrounds.

As Australian diplomats, it is very important that we reflect the nature and the makeup of Australian society, and I am very proud to work for an organisation that genuinely does that.

Harinder Sidhu.Indian Link
Harinder Sidhu presents at women’s health policy forum

PL: The US ambassador to India is of Indian heritage, as is the Canadian ambassador to India. Do you think that there is a better connect if the High Commissioner or Ambassador have a heritage link with the country of their posting?

HS: This is a genuine advantage. I’ve been very struck at how warmly received I have been here in Delhi, and I have just been in Chennai and the same thing happened there. The Indian government, Indian businesses, people are quite pleased to see people of Indian origin doing well in other countries and the countries that they have adopted.

I do think it has been an advantage and I do think it helps us connect a bit better. Certainly, language skills also help, though that’s not unique to people of Indian origin. I really do hope that I am able to do my best to represent Australia using every advantage at my disposal.

PL: We’ve just marked International Women’s Day and it makes us very happy to be talking to you, a high ranking woman in a leadership position. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has seen a few women placed at top positions and although she says that she doesn’t see a gender issue in her job, it’s good for women to be finally getting through the glass ceilings. Your comments?

HS: I agree with Julie Bishop in that I don’t see myself as a woman ambassador but I do think that there’s a lot to be said for women doing their best to get ahead. My advice to young women is just go for it, don’t place limits on yourself, dream big, think big and go as far as you can. Unless women reach for what they want, they are never going to get there, and that goes for anybody. I really encourage women to do whatever they can to reach the maximum of their potential.

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UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL

Indian women who inspire you?

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, founder and CEO of the second largest tech company here in India. I also met a group of fantastic Indian women in Chennai recently. One of them, Mallika Srinivasan, is the head of an agricultural automotive machinery company. She is very inspirational and I am so pleased to have met her.

If you had to invite four people over for dinner – two from India, two from Australia – who would they be?

Shah Rukh Khan would have to be one! But there are so many inspiring people from India… There would have to be a historical figure. I would be really interested to meet Indians from the past. Nehru would be one and Mahatma Gandhi. But I would also be interested in talking with more modern thinkers, people like Amartya Sen. And Indian writers and authors… there are many who I would genuinely love to meet and talk to, so there is a long list!

On the Australian side, someone like Elizabeth Broderick who I really admire, and in fact I have had her around for dinner so that’s a good thing! And great Australian writers and historians, people like the writer Patrick White. Sadly he is not around anymore.

Seen anything from Bollywood?

Brahmachari was the first movie that I ever watched! I’ve seen quite a few Bollywood films – it’s legend in my family that I am a big fan of Shah Rukh Khan! So I have seen all the SRK movies from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge to Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, most recently I watched Dilwale. Chak De was a good movie because it was set in Australia so it had all the things I love, Australia and Shah Rukh Khan!

Favourite Indian cricket player?

It would have to be Sachin Tendulkar, he is the legend. And from today’s team, M.S Dhoni.

Favourite Australian player?

Usman Khawaja! Australia is a very strong team and we will be cheering them on in the T20 World Cup.

Places you would like to holiday in India?

Shimla, because it is like a fairy-tale place. I have heard so much about it. It has all these connections with the past and it has still that sense of grandeur about it as a place to go to in the summertime.

Goa, because it is unique in terms of the Portuguese background and also today, as a place for a holiday, it would be great to explore.

I would also like to explore more of south India. As someone with a north Indian background, I would like to see some of the temples and historical sites there.

From India, what two things would you bring back to Australia?

I would like to join a project which one of my colleagues here has underway, which is to buy a sari from every part of India. I occasionally where sarees but I think I will take it up much more here. It’s so beautiful and with sarees that are unique to different parts of India, having that collection would be wonderful.

The second thing that I would like to get would be some sculptures – beautiful carvings and bronzes of Hindu gods and goddesses. I would love to have a bronze of Saraswati, as she exemplifies many things that I care about and strive for in my own life.

Similarly from Australia, what two things would you suggest someone bring back to India?

Australia is very well-known for its wine, so a good bottle of red. I would also encourage them to consider exploring and supporting indigenous arts in Australia. There are some fabulous Australian artists coming out now, and I really think supporting indigenous arts and craft is something I would like to see more people to do when they visit Australia.