The art of diplomacy

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As he wraps up his term in office, High Commissioner Navdeep Suri talks all things Indian Australian 

India’s High Commissioner to Australia Navdeep Suri, who has been the highest Indian official in Australia since April 2015, will soon be leaving our shores to take up his new posting as Indian Ambassador to the UAE. He spoke on Indian Link Radio about bilateral relations, the global economy, statesmanship and his favourite memories of Australia, as well as about the financial situation back home in India.

Navdeep Suri.Indian Link
Photo: Australia India Institute

Pawan Luthra: The United States’ President-elect Donald Trump referred to India in several ways during the campaign: as a country that is growing fast; as a country that is stealing American jobs, and as a country that is a target for terrorists. Early on, he declared he was “looking forward to working with Prime Minister Narendra Modi”. In the early days of a Trump presidency, how should India seize the initiative with the new team to be able to shape the India-US relationship?

Navdeep Suri: The Prime Minister took the first step and called Mr Trump to congratulate him and convey his desire to take India-US relations to an even higher level. Having had the benefit of visiting our embassy in Washington some time back, there is a very strong bipartisan consensus now for stronger India-US relations. It is not just in India’s interest, but also America’s interest to have a stronger strategic partnership – not just for economic or trade reasons, but also for geopolitical reasons. I think the trends we saw under President Bush, that continued under President Obama, are likely to continue under President Trump.

Navdeep Suri.Indian Link

PL: What else can India do to forge an even closer relationship with the US now that there is a change of power at the top?

NS: We have a new Ambassador in Washington, one of our top diplomats Navtej Sarna, just took up his posting. I am sure that as the transition gathers steam we will be engaged in conversations with all the prominent players. And soon after the new administration settles down we will again pick up momentum in relations. In substantial terms, not much can be done until the new President and Cabinet is sworn in. Whether you see it in the field of defence and security cooperation or trade and investment, the US is a very large partner. There is enough momentum in the relationship that it will continue with any new administration.

Navdeep Suri.Indian Link

PL: Moving on to Indian issues, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement of demonetisation took us all by surprise. What impact do you think it will have in India and for NRIs globally?

NS: Firstly, I think the element of surprise was essential if it was to be effective. This is predominantly, principally, a measure to tackle corruption and forged currency notes which have been flooding into our country from across our borders. And these pose a major security challenge because often forged notes are used for financing terror activities.

The second thing I can tell you as a former student of economics, is that it will have some short-term pain but huge long term gains for the Indian economy. First and foremost, we will be tax compliant. We are aware of people who make large sums of money – legally or illegally – but do not pay any taxes. Now that money will have to go into the banking system, rather than stay as wads of cash, it will have to be accounted for. As tax compliance improves, the resources available to the government to invest in infrastructure will improve.

Navdeep Suri.Indian Link

When people start to deposit money into the banks, it improves the liquidity of banks. The more banks have in terms of deposits, the more they are able to lend to business activity. We see a stimulus coming into the economy as this plays out in the coming months.

It also moves us towards a cashless economy, and in a sense, it pulls the Indian economy into the 21st century. We can’t remain part of the 21st century, with the aspirations that we have, in a country where 80 per cent of transactions take place in cash.

Particularly in sectors like real estate, where we have seen how large amounts of cash, particularly unaccounted for cash, can create speculative bubbles, and can push prices to unrealistic levels. We will see an immediate correction in real estate markets and hopefully we will see things become more affordable for ordinary people. Hopefully prices will come to a realistic level related to cost rather than speculative impulses. This is a big boost for the Indian economy. We’re aware this will cause short-term inconvenience, even short-term disruption. It’s inevitable when you have a reform on this scale, unveiled in the manner it has been, to the limits of surprise. Forging will also be addressed through the release of the new notes with security features.

On the final point about NRIs, we have received a number of enquiries about the subject. We have taken these questions and concerns on board and relayed them to the Ministry of Finance and the RBI and we have asked them to look into this. Please be patient. It’s not an Australia-specific problem; it’s for NRIs across the board.

Navdeep Suri.Indian Link

PL: Coming to your time here, Mr Suri, I understand after your last posting you specifically asked for Australia to be your next career destination. You had said at the time and I quote, “The relationship between India and Australia has been growing very significantly in the last few years, particularly after the visit of Prime Minister Modi here in November, 2014. And as a professional diplomat, the opportunity to get my teeth into something solid and meaty in terms of a relationship was an opportunity that I wouldn’t pass by.” What were your expectations at the time of your arrival?

NS: I’m very comfortable with what we’ve been able to achieve in about four or so specific areas where I have personally devoted a lot of attention and effort. The first is defence and security. A framework cooperation agreement on security was signed by Prime Minister Modi at the time of his visit but it was left to people like us on the ground to implement it. Last year in September, we had our first ever bilateral naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal. An Australian ship, a submarine, maritime surveillance aircraft and other assets were in Visakhapatnam for ten days exercising with their Indian counterparts, developing relationships. That exercise was so successful we’ve agreed to make it a regular biennial feature so already planning is underway for the next one in Perth for 2017. In terms of maritime security cooperation, particularly in the wake of events in the South China Sea, there is a really strong desire that democracies like India and Australia must work together. A lot of the foundational work for that has been done to really take this to the next level, not just in terms of establishing trust and confidence, but systems of interoperability.

We’ve had our first trilateral discussions at the foreign secretary level between India, Australia and Japan, giving the three big democracies in the region a chance to talk about the big picture of the relationship. We’re soon going to have our first ever “2 plus 2” where the Foreign Secretaries and the Defence Secretaries of the two countries sit together to look at the larger foreign policy and security policy perspectives. These are new things that have taken place or are in the pipeline now which I feel comfortable I have been able to initiate during my time here.

Navdeep Suri.Indian Link

The second area where we’ve been able to do quite a bit is in energy sector cooperation. The uranium issue has been resolved, the agreement has been ratified, and we’re expecting commercial negotiations to begin fairly soon. We look at Australia as a serious, long-term source of uranium for our growing nuclear power industry.

On coal, not only the fact we are buying, but most of the major hurdles in the Adani project have been resolved and we expect this very major project to take off in the next few months.

In gas, we’re engaged in some substantive discussions to see how the LNG requirements, particularly in southern India, could be met from Australian gas.

We’re talking about mining technology, clean coal technology, mining safety areas, mining equipment, areas in which Australia is really good.

Energy sector cooperation has really taken off and we’ve had visits by Minister Piyush Goyal, so we’ve really given momentum to this.

The third area where we’ve had a lot of cooperation is the broad field of education and skills. It’s not just the fact that there are 60 or 70,000 Indian students here, but the joint PhD programs and joint research projects that are taking place. These are things that don’t make headlines, but when you have Monash University opening a campus at IIT Mumbai, or Deakin University do something with TERI [The Energy and Resources Institute of India] or when you see the 240 research projects being supported through the Australia-India Strategic Research Fund, these are things that impact the lives of real people, in terms of the solutions that come out. Skills is such a big challenge for India; if we are to meet our development aspirations, then we have to upskill our people. Australia has a very strong vocational education framework, so we’re working with both the government through TAFE and the private players to see how we can encourage them to take a more active role in the Indian market.

Navdeep Suri.Indian Link

PL: But Mr Suri, in terms of trade and investments, do you feel that we are moving in higher gears than we were a few years ago?

NS: No, I think that is the one area where I would give both sides the ‘Can do better’ grade. The reasons can be many. I know there was an anticipation perhaps that we would be able to complete the negotiations on the Free Trade Agreement or the CECA [Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement], but I was personally always a little more cautious on that, if you’ve heard me speak at various platforms. I feel that a major agreement like this has to be a win-win agreement and we did see areas where there was an asymmetry of benefits and an asymmetry of sacrifices. Particularly when you look at a developed economy like Australia and a developing economy like India, where the tariffs are much higher, I think that’s going to take some time to happen.

Navdeep Suri.Indian Link

PL: But do you think we still have champions in the new government here who are willing to push the cause? Andrew Robb and Tony Abbott wanted CECA to be signed. That was the promise made when the two Prime Ministers shook hands in November 2014; it was set to be accomplished within a year. Now, almost two years down the track, we’re still trying to make something happen.

NS: I think it’s going to take a lot of work, not just from the Australian side, but also from the Indian side. Right now, both sides are engaged in the RCEP [Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership] negotiations for a regional trade agreement so there is an issue. How can you negotiate a bilateral agreement when you’re also talking about a regional agreement with the same players? These are very complex negotiations and they have a huge impact in terms of the lives and livelihoods of people.

As a case in point, look at the agricultural sector. Australia has agriculture on a remarkably large scale, with farm holdings on tens of thousands of hectares. In India, a lot of agriculture is subsistence; it simply can’t compete with Australian agriculture. And until we are able to transition into a more modern agriculture practice, you can’t leave vulnerable farmers at the mercy of market forces.

There is a fair amount of work to be done before CECA can be concluded. The two Ministers did meet on the sidelines of the East Asia summit in Laos and did agree to resume the negotiations, but it’s going to take some time.

Navdeep Suri.Indian Link

PL: Let’s talk about the local community here. You have travelled all over Australia and interacted with all the various associations, groups and individuals. Your observations?

NS: I love meeting with the community and learning from them, understanding local issues from them. I see the passion so many of them have to contribute something to India, to India-Australia relations, and I am really thrilled that a number of them are doing that in big ways, and in small ways. This could be either in terms of contributing to NGOs in India, or taking some specialised knowledge back to India. There’s a sense of pride that they are from India, (and that even though) they live in Australia and may be Australian citizens, that umbilical cord that ties them to India is still very strong.

PL: There are a number of groups all making a mark in their own little way. How do you suggest they can harness their strengths to be bigger champions for all things Indian in Australia?

NS: I’d love to see unity in diversity, if I can use that cliché. While we continue to have the marvels of Indian diversity playing out in Australia, through the Punjabi, and Bengali, and Kannada, and UP, and Rajasthani and other associations, it would be nice to see stronger federation that brings together all of the Indian associations and bodies under one umbrella. I know efforts have been made in this direction, but I am also aware that for either organisational or personality or egotistical or other reasons, somehow it doesn’t gather the strength or dynamism that it potentially could. To that extent, the achievement or the effort of the Indian community to make that impact as a whole remains suboptimal. But that’s how it is. We pride ourselves in our diversity and sometimes that is reflected in the absence of a unity of purpose.

Navdeep Suri.Indian Link
Navdeep Suri with India’s State Minister of Culture and Tourism Mahesh Sharma and NSW Minsiter for Multiculturalism John Ajaka

PL: Let’s talk about Confluence: Festival of India in Australia. The Festival had as one of its objectives to introduce Indian arts and culture to Australia. It received great publicity from the ABC and the Fairfax press. It touched seven cities over almost four months. It was well attended in most places but largely by Indian audiences. How strong was the actual ‘confluence’?

NS: When you look at the total of 72 events spread across the seven cities, there’s obviously a huge diversity in the audiences that the different events attracted. We’ve tried to do some analysis of why the audience profiles were so different. When we look at Perth or Brisbane, it was maybe 60% mainstream Australians, 40% ethnic Indians or other ethnic communities; but in Sydney or Melbourne it was probably 80% Indians, and 20% other communities. One reason is, we took an early decision that we wanted to have the premier venues in each city, whether it was the Sydney Opera House, or the Majesty’s Theatre in Perth. Not every venue was amenable to a collaborative relationship. What we discovered was, in Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane, where we were able to work in partnerships with the venues, the venues themselves were very proactive in promoting the events across their databases. This meant they were able to reach the broadest arts-loving community, rather than just reaching out to the Indian community. In Sydney, unfortunately, we were unable to do a partnership with the Sydney Opera House. They didn’t know the quality of programming we were bringing. We were left no option but to rent the facilities, which meant they had less of a stake in promoting the events, which is why you saw a different mix. But also I have to give credit, because the Indian community in Sydney is so vibrant, they really embraced the festival and so we had full-houses. No complaints in terms of turn-out, but with the larger objective of reaching out to the wider community, perhaps we fell a bit short in Sydney as compared to Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. But I would say the quality of events we brought was an eye-opener for the Opera House management. And perhaps next year we might see a different approach.

Navdeep Suri.Indian Link

PL: What advice will you give to future organisers?

NS: We already have an architecture in place for next year’s program. The work on that, in terms of dates and so on, has already begun. We just had a very extensive review of what went well and what didn’t go to plan. The fact that we have more than 210 stories in the media, is a big success in terms of the buzz we wanted to generate. In terms of engagement, there are places where we did extremely well, and places where we give ourselves a ‘can do better’. Year One is always tough. We’ve been fairly introspective and self-critical, but our partners seem to be thrilled to bits.

PL: Your message to the Indian Australian community?

NS: Thank you for all the love and affection that I have received throughout the last 18 months, in Sydney, in Melbourne, in Perth, in Brisbane, in Darwin, in Adelaide, even in Alice Springs, and everywhere else. We go back with very fond memories. Keep the Australian flag flying and keep the Indian flag flying!

Navdeep Suri.Indian Link

Up close and personal

An everlasting memory of Australia: Watching the Indian team hammer the Australian team during the One-Day games in 2015. Particularly Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma on song.

An Australian identity/personality who I will always remember: Pat Farmer, for his stunning Kanyakumari to Kashmir run earlier this year. Running 80km a day, covering the distance of some 4000km, and then continuing to be such a great ambassador for India-Australia relations. That combination of a lovely personality, also the determination he shows, and the unwavering will, is something that has really impacted me.

Navdeep Suri.Indian Link
Navdeep Suri’s favourite Aussie is Pat Farmer

Three Australian guests I would love to have over for dinner: Barry O’Farrell – I really enjoy our conversations across a broad range of topics each time we meet). Michelle Guthrie – I love what she’s trying to do at the ABC, with her former experience not just at Google, but, you may not know this, she was also involved in commissioning Kaun Banega Crorepati when she worked at Star. She is a person I have a great deal of respect for. And Foreign Minister Julie Bishop – she’s quite the star and has a wonderful combination of being extremely professional at one level, but when we’ve interacted in less formal circumstances, also great fun as an individual.

Most confusing thing I found in Australian daily life: The Australian bureaucracy, which can sometimes be as impressive as our own in terms of its sheer ability to not get things done or have things done in a certain way.

If I had a spare four days in Australia… I would go and camp at Uluru and enjoy every sunrise and sunset, walk around and explore. I have been before, but with the regret that it was cloudy and rainy and I couldn’t make the most of it. It’s a place where I would love to go back and soak in the atmosphere and energy; there is a spirituality about it.

Favourite (non-Indian) restaurant in Australia: Eightysix in Canberra. They have everything from cured kangaroo to duck wraps to some exquisite vegetarian dishes. The whole menu is great.

Things Australia/Australians can learn from India / Indians and vice versa: What Australia could learn from India is that sometimes you innovate to get the job done, and don’t allow process to stifle the outcome. India should learn from Australia that it’s not all about jugaad; jugaad is not a substitute for having strong processes in place.