Democracy, Diaspora, Dosti: Demystifying India

JODI McKAY on the next stage in the Australia-India relationship: promoting India as well as demystifying it

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The visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, besides whipping up a storm of interest in all things Indian, laid down a new challenge for the relationship between Australia and India.

Moving on from the traditional three Cs of Cricket, Curry and the Commonwealth, Prime Minister Modi declared that we needed now to move to the three Ds of Democracy, Diaspora and Dosti.

The simple turn of phrase to the three Ds is a powerful message to Australia in how it shapes up to this new chapter of interaction with India.

India and Australia are two proud democracies. Our respective blending of cultures, belief systems and customs makes our democracies even stronger. With this comes challenges and at times conflict, but our open, democratic systems must, in their own unique ways, guide and shape our societies as we move into the economic, geo-political, social and environmental challenges of the next decade.

The diaspora is what I see as the “secret ingredient” of the India Australia relationship. The language of Prime Minister Modi was imbued with the notion of the diaspora as the “living bridge” between our two nations. I say secret, because up till now, Australian politics and to a lesser extent business have struggled to realise the potential of the diaspora.

In 2018, former Australian High Commissioner to India Peter Varghese, released his seminal report An Indian Economic Strategy to 2035, which placed a strong focus on the role of the diaspora in building, shaping and strengthening ties between India and Australia.

Democracy diaspora dosti: jodi McKay at Modi event
The recent visits by our Prime Ministers to each other’s country are important signposts of just how far we have progressed. (Photo: Supplied)

The Federal Government’s Centre for Australia-India Relations (CAIR), which was launched by Prime Minister Albanese this week, is tasked with ensuring the living bridge has the support and infrastructure for it to prosper. The announcement was a positive step in delivering business outcomes through growing cultural understanding, India literacy and diaspora engagement.

But we cannot afford to be complacent in our relationship with India because there are other nations equally keen to strengthen their ties with the economic juggernaut. Our Prime Ministers are also very busy people and can only shine a light on the way forward periodically.

This is why we need to follow up and follow through each and every time these significant events and meetings take place. We need agencies working hand in hand with the diaspora to identify opportunities, open doors and help solve inevitable challenges when they arise.

Ultimately we need to use the momentum of this visit to not only promote India as a place to do business, but to demystify India.

There is still a perception in Australia of an India fifteen years ago, of a business system that is overly bureaucratic and complex, and a country underdeveloped.

So how do we change those misconceptions and then make it easier for businesses wanting to explore the Indian market?

There is now a framework for our corporates to engage bilaterally under an MoU between the Business Council of Australia (BCA) and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), which commits to a CEO forum annually. We now need to ensure that agreement delivers with tangible trade and business outcomes and those success stories are promoted.

For small to medium businesses, the Australia India Business Council calls for the Indian Government’s investment attraction agency, Invest India, to establish a presence in Australia and work directly with state-based trade agencies to ‘hand-hold’ businesses through the set up phase to operation. We currently have the infrastructure in both countries, but collaboration is ad hoc at best.

And we need a multi-level diaspora strategy. While the focus has been on the Australian Government to lead this work, the States also have a responsibility to activate their diaspora networks. In the course of my work as National Chair of the Australia India Business Council, I have seen real progress by States such as Queensland and Western Australia. Their India presence is strong and their domestic strategies commendable. But we need all States to be capturing the opportunities and opening themselves up to the opportunities of trade with India.

I look back to where the relationship was in 2018, when Peter Varghese presented the Federal Government with his report. The green shoots of a deeper, more advanced, more mature relationship were there, but the recent visits by our Prime Ministers to each other’s country are important signposts of just how far we have progressed.

However, we must maintain this momentum and build on the achievements made over the recent past. And to that end, the role of the diaspora will be critical.

Jodi McKay is National Chair of the Australia India Business Council; Advisory Board Member of the Centre for Australia-India Relations, and Vice Chancellor’s Fellow – South Asia, Western Sydney University

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