Forging a future

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Former High Commissioner G Parthasarathy on the India-Oz equation. PAWAN LUTHRA reports

The past is the foundation of the future; though it may seem like ancient history to some, India’s current relationship with Australia has been built on the rubble of political mistrust, diplomatic disruption and media misinterpretation. The reality is that the India-Australia relationship weathered many storms in the past two decades, and continues to harbour in still uncertain waters. The late 1980s and early 1990s were difficult times with little or no dialogue between the two countries, and the current cordiality that exists has been the result of changed perceptions and painstaking diplomatic efforts developed and enhanced only in the past few years.

Meet G Parthasarthy

Gopalaswami Parthasarathy was High Commissioner of India to Australia from 1995 to 1998. It was a particularly turbulent time when relations were strained because of a series of nuclear tests India had conducted in Pokhran, Rajasthan. While major global powers including the United Nations condemned the tests, the US went a step further and imposed economic sanctions on India. Australia joined the bandwagon of criticism, vociferously proclaiming its disapproval of what seemed to be Indian audacity at the time.

As High Commissioner of India, Mr Parthasarathy was caught in the crossfire between the two countries, and he was witness to the near breaking down of relations at that crucial time.

However, a lot of water has flowed under the proverbial bridge connecting India and Australia, and Mr Parthasarathy has followed the intricate and slow process of rebuilding mutual trust and respect over the past two decades.

Mr Parthasarathy was in Australia recently in his capacity as one of the six members making up the Australia India Institute’s Perceptions Taskforce created in September 2011. In brief, this Taskforce was formed to review Australia-India relations, particularly in the light of uneasy past relations and more recent situations, as well as to make recommendations on how to respond to these challenges. The report titled Beyond the Last Decade, discusses the key issues arising from this process and presents them from Indian and Australian viewpoints. As a crucial member of the Taskforce, Mr Parthasarthy was here to present the report to a distinguished audience at the University of Sydney.

I took the opportunity to contact Mr Parthasarathy again, and continued the conversation which I had with him 14 years ago, a few days after Pokhran. He was then being grilled in Australia both by the politicians and the media about this “bastardly”act by India. Despite the passage of years, Mr Parthasarthy was just as friendly, warm, erudite, thoughtful and often outspoken as I remember him in 1998.

Raking up the past

We began with delving into past history, from the time of Mr Parthasarathy’s tenure as High Commissioner of India in Australia and the hostility that Australia harboured towards India. In his opinion, what were the reasons behind this openly abrasive attitude?

Mr Parthasarathy was charmingly candid as he firmly lobbed the ball into Australia’s court. Relations were already strained, he explained, but following the Pokhran nuclear tests, Australia’s overreaction to the situation prompted India to retaliate with a virtual diplomatic boycott. “Between 1998 and 2002 the Australian High Commissioner had no access to any major politician or decision maker in India. Even the Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fisher, who was a very well meaning minister, was not granted access to India’s PM,” he recalled.

“Australia’s overreaction to the nuclear tests completely mired the already tenuous relationship between the countries. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer felt that India would collapse under the weight of sanctions. And I told him that we will not deal with Australia; Australia did not count. We will deal and sort out matters with the US, which we did.  I think Australia was punching above its weight at that point in time,” added Mr Parthasarathy.

Australia’s politicians set the tone after India liberalised

When India took the path of liberalisation in 1991, most major Western countries such as United States, the United Kingdom etc  began to woo India. Where was Australia at this time?

“Keating (then the Prime Minister of Australia) was particularly symbolic of this policy of pretending India did not exist,” said Mr Parthasarathy emphatically. “There has been blame attached to Australian diplomats, but the reality is that they were quite professional.  I think this was the personal arrogance of the then Prime Minister Paul Keating, which was really responsible for the relationship India and Australia had in the early 1990s.  I must say that the coming of John Howard and Tim Fisher symbolized change”.

I recalled that Gareth Evans, Foreign Minister in the Keating government had been vociferous in his criticism of India.

“Gareth was a person who was far too preachy, too full of himself.  There is a report about a conversation he had with VP Naryanan, where all he could talk about was the great economic opportunity India would get if Telstra was allowed into the country. Telstra came in and did not stay a year!”

It’s evident that the Australian diplomatic core did not recognise the true potential of India. And post-Pokharan, while relations with the US and the ASEAN countries improved, Australia’s relations with India remained mired in distrust. This short-sightedness resulted in relations taking even longer to heal, which affected the economic, social, business and diplomatic status between the countries.

A change of heart

I recalled that in our meeting in 1998, Mr Parthasarathy had expressed hurt in South Hall at the words that India had committed an act of ‘nuclear bastardry’. Has Australia been forgiven for making that statement?

“Well, time moves on and you can’t live in the past,” observed Mr Parthasarathy. “Eventually as Indian influence grew, especially as the India–US relationship improved with the coming of George Bush, India began to be viewed as a strategic partner by the United States.  And then Canberra saw the writing on the wall.”

The relationship took its time to change from openly hostile to grudging interaction to cordial respectfulness. But despite that change, no Indian Prime Minister has visited Australia for over 25 years, even at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), last held in Perth in October 2011.

“I think the relationship now is very good and there are no differences of any substantive nature,” stated Mr Parthasarathy. “The Indian Prime Minister could not come to CHOGM primarily because they really had pressing domestic engagements.  Otherwise, an Indian Prime Minster will not miss a Commonwealth Head of Governments meeting.  However, the Vice President attended, and this was indicative of the high symbolic importance that India attaches to the relationship with Australia”.

Good neighbours, but friends?

It’s clear that Mr Parthasarathy felt the time for change was well at hand, and that we should look forward to a more fruitful, positive alliance with Australia.

“Yes, we should now look to the future and leave the past behind us,” he confirmed.  “And I would say that over the last 3-4 years the relationship has really improved”.

The Indo-Australian security issues are considered very significant, so is the perception of Australia being too close to China damaging the relationship at all?

“No, I don’t think so,” emphasised Mr Parthasarathy. “When Kevin Rudd was Prime Minister, what surprised all was his unilateral decision to withdraw from the four-power naval exercises which had Australia, Japan, Indonesia and India participating without any prior consultation with India or any others. It did raise some eyebrows in New Delhi. But that’s the past, it’s behind us.  And I think we’re looking to the future, and the future looks bright”.

Mutual media massacres

However, I wasn’t so keen to leave the past behind! There were questions which needed answers. I asked Mr. Parthasarathy about an issue that has dogged us through the decades, and continues to do so – the role of the media. The Indian media went berserk in 2009 and 2010, splashing every conceivable news channel with the students’ issue.  Almost in retaliation, the Australian media’s reportage on the lead up to the Commonwealth Games in Delhi was vitriolic and derisive. What triggered off this media war and when will it end?

“I wouldn’t call it a media war,” Mr Parthasarathy replied. “You have a hyperactive, highly competitive, news channel development in India and any story which gives better ratings is welcome. Both Australia and India tend to go overboard with public reaction – that’s one thing that unites us.  Yes, parents in India were concerned (when the news broke about the students in Australia); after all, they had accumulated their life savings to send their children to Australia, and they would feel compelled to ask them to return. And all because of the media exposure of the issue.”

Positive outcomes

So have there been any positive outcomes? “Certainly, because the Australian government has taken action,” Mr Parthasarathy was quick to respond. “The pressure has eased and people with garages posing as universities and colleges to lure Indian students and the institutions who gave a wrong impression of Australian education, have now been closed down.  The fact is that Australian education standards are very high, and their institutions are very highly regarded globally.” However, he added, “Australia should not focus only on numbers and money, but with the quality of education for Indian students. Happily, the trend is moving in that direction. It is clear that Australia will have to make a decision: does it want quality in quality institutions, or does it want numbers. The rapid expansion of the middle class in India means parents can afford to send their children overseas to study – and Australia should offer their best in education for these students. They should advertise in India that the best quality of education overseas is available in Australia. This will compel good students to come here.”

Student shenanigans

I couldn’t resist asking, could the student crisis have been handled differently?

“No, it was a situation which broke out. If there were isolated incidents, it would have blown over.  But the number of incidents increased and naturally, people in India began to worry about an emerging pattern of attacks,” said Mr Parthasarathy. “I always pointed out that it was confined to Victoria, which was rather surprising as Melbourne is one of the best integrated cities I’ve known.  I argued that it was confined to lumpen elements reacting to the recession in employment and was not a factor or characteristic of Australian society. I made this clear on Indian TV”.

But should the diplomats and politicians have been stronger in their denial of any serious problems, I insisted. “The Indian High Commissioner Sujatha Singh was very careful with what she said on Indian TV, but there is only so much a diplomat or politician can do.  Sometimes you are swept away by the tide of events,” explained Mr Parthasarathy. “It was a good story from a media point of view, but that’s the way the media functions. You get excellent coverage of Gilchrist and Steve Waugh, and now Watson, embodying all that is good in Australian society, and then a couple of lumpens get violent and things change!”

Dumb, drunk and racist?

Back to the immediate present, I ask Mr Parthasarathy if it is true that the Indian stereotype about Australians is that they are “dumb, drunk and racist” as a recent TV series suggested. “Let me be very clear that I consider Australia to be a vibrant, multicultural, multi-racial society,” he noted in reply.  “It is integrating very rapidly with its immediate neighbourhood, rather than clinging to past relationships with the UK and Europe. In any society you will have a few people with prejudices. Even in India there’s no doubt that there are people with caste and religious prejudices.  But that does not make the society as a whole prejudiced or racist”.

“I think it’s very wrong to stereotype Australia or Australians in such terms,” he emphasised, with feeling. “I have a great deal of admiration for the way Australia is integrating, via both its population and its strategic and economic ties, with its immediate neighbours”.

Future plans

So now to the future: how do you foresee the India-Australia relationship in say, ten years’ time, I asked?

“I see a vibrant economic content,” said Mr Parthasarathy candidly. “Right now India’s investment in Australia is between $12 and $13 billion.  Australian investment in India is much less, in the area of $5 billion or less.  However Australian companies like Telstra and ANZ Bank, despite lucrative opportunities (and in the case of ANZ, substantial profits) couldn’t stay the course. Australian mining companies have a genuine problem getting into India, but that’s our fault. We need a transparent, forward-looking framework for investment into our mining sector.  And I guess we’ll have to set our house in order”.

And politically?

“We have no problems with Australia politically, the future is quite bright. With the current problems in the South China Sea, both Australia and India  -and Asia as such – are partners for the future; we can work together and we are working together.  We are both members of the East Asia Summit and there is no difference in our views on those issues. We have a tendency to look back to the past, but it’s more important to look to the future”.

People change, but does policy?

But what if there’s a change in government over the next 12 months and Tony Abbott leads the country. How would that change the nature of the realtionship?

“I haven’t met Tony Abbott, but I was very happy with direction of the relationship while John Howard was PM,” said Mr Parthasarathy.   “Yes, the Pokhran nuclear tests caused an upheaval, but I think Australia realised they overreacted and miscalculated. However, we’ve moved on and Howard was generally seen in India as forward-looking. I also believe that with PM Julia Gillard, the relationship is looking up.  I hope that when she visits India, she will come fully prepared to implement the Labor Party resolution on nuclear fuel.  It does not make sense for Australia alone to move in one direction, and the rest of the world to move in another”.

The ultimate uranium question

Why then has Australia slowed down in regards to the implementation on uranium sales to India?

“Julia Gillard has a lot on her plate right now, and we too, are not rushed,” revealed Mr. Parthasarathy. “We’ve got other contracts with countries ranging from Namibia to Kazakhstan, our nuclear reactors are running at full capacity and we’ve got all the uranium ready to move on.  However, given the past, the nuclear issue has obtained a largely symbolic significance than any immediate need in India.  It does not make much logic to see militaries co-operating together while Australia sells uranium to China and bars the sale to India. Compounding the sale will certainly send a very positive signal and increase the already substantial forward momentum on the improvement of relations. And there has been a continuous process of engagement.  Governments are in touch and therefore I’m optimistic that this will be resolved”.

If Kevin Rudd were to be returned as leader of the Labor Party, would the decision change? After all, Rudd was always against the sale of uranium to India.

“No, I won’t speculate on that,” said Mr Parthsarathy.  “We’ve had substantial negotiations when Kevin Rudd was Prime Minister. Also, these issues go by national consensus. The relationship has reached a stage where it should not depend on any political party or leader. The India-Australia relationship can transcend considerations of parties and individuals. In most mature democracies, there is a national consensus and relations with major countries are not guided by the fate of any single individual or political party”.

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