A relationship of promise: Interview with Dr. Ajay Gondane

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With just a few weeks to go before his three-year tenure finishes, India’s High Commissioner to Australia Dr Ajay Gondane sat down with Indian Link Media Group CEO PAWAN LUTHRA to look back at his time in Australia, and to the future of the relationship between the two nations.

In talks with Dr Ajay Gondane

TALKING TRADE

What milestones, would you say, has the India-Australia trade relationship crossed in the last three years?

The India-Australia relationship has been an upward trajectory for the past 10 years, especially post signing the 2014 Strategic Partnership Agreement. Though together we have made steady growth in sectors spanning across bilateral trade – education, sports, health and medicine, agriculture – the targets still seem sub-optimal. This is mainly because of the enormous potential and opportunities that exist between the two countries, that it would be incumbent on us to or aspire for more progress.

The trade relationship still has more potential as the growth in the Indian markets is a good opportunity for Australian bankers to partake. But I guess, the reason why Australian growth opportunists are still wary about the Indian markets is due to their high preference for very low risk investments. India is not considered as low-risk as of yet.

But there’s progress, for example Macquarie Bank has invested $2 billion in our toll road management. Things are moving and will keep improving, once Australian businesses realize that they would be assured of very good returns on their investments in India.

On the other hand, Indian investors have actively made investments in the coal sector in Australia. Despite some debacles faced by giant investors such as GVK, Jindals and the Adani group, there’s still scope in the coal and cooking gas sector. A few fruitful investments will positively change the scenario and encourage more Indian investments in Australia.

Speaking of India importing coal, has the Adani group become more of a political football?

It’s not unusual to face legal and socio-ethical hurdles in mining projects of such enormous propensity. Since the start, environmentalists and some other stakeholders have been opposing the progress of the Adani group. To my knowledge, the Indian mining company has done all the due processes to mitigate opposition at the state level, the federal level as well as public level.

To what extent do the bilateral relations between the two countries revolve around the goodwill of Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Scott Morrison?

The relations between two nations is not personality dependent. Such matters depend on strategic issues and are dynamic. Still, personalities and personal chemistry do play a role in building mutual trust. Both the leaders being so compatible and having a long tenure remaining, this is a prosperous period for bilateral growth. We’ve issued an invitation to Prime Minister Scott Morrison for an India visit. Let’s see.

Would you say Australia could balance its dependence on China by increasing trade and diplomatic options with India?

I cannot comment on Australia’s equation with other countries, but I can definitely say that India is emerging as a good market for Australia. India can partner Australia in areas such as agriculture, commodities, minerals – areas that are all vital for us. Do note that India is a water-stressed country and we are dependent on water-intensive crops. As of now we are not importing so much; our imports of Australian agricultural products is $1.6-2 billion but it can grow. Specially, the need for India is in horticulture products, which are very efficiently produced in Australia. Australia can find a very good partner in India.

Our extensive defence talks are bearing fruit in form of joint exercises and policies such as AUSINDEX and the Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2019. A growing maritime security domain is also an area being looked upon. We expect to sign a major logistics agreement with Australia.

The relationship to the entire gamut of diplomatic, politico-economic, defence, security and of course other areas such as science, technology and sport, is indeed wonderful.

ON KASHMIR

Can you share with us the background to the revocation of Article 370 in Kashmir?

First and foremost, Article 370 has always been a temporary provision. It’s been carried forward for more than 6 decades. Several clauses in this article rid the Kashmiri citizens of the inclusiveness they deserve. Many progressive laws introduced by the Central Government couldn’t be accessed by Kashmiri citizens. Moreover, the lack of accountability of allocated funds was very high. This in many ways has led to disproportionate development of several growth aspects such as the education system. The social capital which is an accumulation of many years, is not proportionate.

What are your views on remarks of biased structural reorganisation in Jammu and Kashmir?

Such a reorganisation has been recently implemented in Telangana and Seemandhra, previously in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. There is no bias here, unfortunately this has been coloured as an impingement on changing the valley’s demographics. Where we have had reorganization before nothing has changed for example, Nagaland and Manipur are Christian majority and Arunachal is a Buddhist majority state.

There have been accusations of the curtailing of civil liberties, especially the shutdown in Kashmir of all communications, such as the Internet.

It’s a pre-emptive measure to minimize any sort of chaos and related casualties. The Telangana agitations led to the death of a student. Crowd gatherings lead to lot of misinformation, incendiary speeches and fake news which can create an atmosphere of civil unrest. We wanted, and have achieved, a smooth transition. As of today, I can guarantee that all landlines have been restored along with registered postpaid mobile numbers. As of the moment, out of 116 police stations, around 106 are open. Normality will eventually ensue and restrictions will be lifted.

Dr Ajay Gondane

ON THE INDIAN COMMUNITY IN AUSTRALIA

What can be done to harness the energy of the Indian-Australian community to help grow the India-Australia relationship?

I’ve observed that the Indian community here is very well educated and skilled in professional traits. We would be most happy when any Indian does well in any part of the world. It’s a wise and enriching way to gain the respect of the Australians and establish a positive image for Indians. This will help us lead the way for a better future and prosperous economy. More and more Indian professionals are building a brand image for us as a reliable and efficient partner.

“Too many chiefs and not enough Indians.” Your thoughts on the proliferation of associations in the Indian Australian community?

I think our diversity has been our strength: this reflects in the dynamism of the communities. Singularity in associations might make it hard to accommodate all enthusiasts. I think more associations are a good spawn for emerging leaders.

UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL

Dr Gondane what’s inspired you to join the Civil Services?

I think it was God’s good grace that I was chosen to serve our nation, rest is all regular hard work and preparations.

Favourite movie and song?

I like Upkaar, and I like that Manna De song, Aae mere pyaare watan.

Dr Gondane an Australian personality that has impressed you?

I am largely impressed by the Australian common man. Their social etiquettes, mannerisms and respect for others’ space is remarkable. It’s worth learning from them, and I feel we should do the same in India.

Dr Gondane, Winston Churchill once said “Diplomacy is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip”. Can you share with us an incident when you had to use your diplomatic skills to the maximum?

(Laughs) The definitions and reasons of diplomacy have changed. We mostly deal with regular functional issues and negotiations ranging from agriculture, education, cultural liaisons etc. It’s not as flowery as cocktail parties and small talks over drinks – rather there are lots of legislative duties.

Dr Gondane what keeps you awake at night?

Well, nothing keeps me awake. I’m a very minor personality in the whole governance system. Unless there’s an emergency or an urgent matter, nothing keeps me awake. Obviously like any other patriot I too worry and ponder on our country’s future and possible progress matters.

What are such matters which bother you?

Remember the ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech? We promised to provide all the comforts of life to every person, such as food, clothing, clean water, health, education etc. How can I contribute to that, what’s my role in closing this gap? Things like these.

Dr Gondane your retirement plans?

I hope to build a small house for aged care in a village near Nagpur, and help my wife Varsha manage a mobile library for the children in the local community.

Adios to a humble diplomat who likes to refer to himself as a seeker of knowledge. May your thirst for knowledge be unquenched as you share your wisdom with all.