Last year I asked a high ranking Indian official for a private comment about the bilateral relationship between India and Australia and he expressed frustration at the efforts to get things working between the two countries. “Every time we try to do something good, something happens which forces us to go backwards. In this relationship there is always many a slip between the cup and the lip.” Things have changed since then and last year has been a watershed year in forming perceptions regarding each other.
The first question which gets discussed in business, social and political groups of these two countries is the issue of violence against Indian students. This question is still popping up and despite plethora of ministerial visits was again discussed in detail by the Indian Prime Minister and the Australia Prime Minister during their meeting in New Delhi.
Violence against Indian students is the sting which needs to be taken out and resolved in this bilateral relationship. The relationship holds great promise and we can’t allow one issue to hijack the entire engagement between the two countries. There are other issues which need to be discussed and sorted out and need attention.
Ricky Ponting’s pointed finger to Indian cricket boss Sharad Pawar and the nudge by Damien Martyn at the Champions Trophy Awards ceremony, on-field altercations of a few sportspeople from both sides and pictures of Indian students attacked has reinforced a picture in the minds of Indian people that Australians have brash manners.
Come 2010 and the hyperbole of security will again be used by Australian media commentators to gain an upper hand in the high decibel debate. For the 2010 Commonwealth games in New Delhi, India is spending a lot of money on the security and wants to showcase India as a sporting destination, despite the security threats.
The England team pulled out of the World Badminton Championship in Hyderabad in August citing security reasons and Australia pulled out of a Davis Cup tennis tie in Chennai in May also citing security concerns. A number of Australian athletes have already expressed reservations about competing in India, with former swimming champion Dawn Fraser even calling for the event to be moved. There needs to be an understanding to show that Australia is backing Indian security: these issues need to be discussed internally and not raised by Australian officials in the media.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd also needs to reach out to the Indian public. John Howard failed to create an image for himself and never appealed to them. Indian masses, glued to TV and print media, give a lot of importance to language spoken by leaders of other countries. Statements by President Barack Obama on Mahatma Gandhi, his love for India, and his Diwali message have all made the headlines, thus creating goodwill and warmth for the US in India.
Kevin Rudd can emulate the same strategy. Rather than focusing on platitudes, there is a need to make a bold statement praising India or softer aspects of Indian society so that the jinx can be broken.
India and its citizens have not formed a negative opinion about US, British or Canadian countries, even though Indian students may have been subjected to urban violence there. How these countries engage with India and how India engages with these countries needs to be studied and replicated in Australian sphere as well.
Australia needs to do more to address Indian sensitivities on the uranium issue and needs to keep the option of supplying uranium to India open instead of out rightly rejecting it. The Labor party is still going strong at the Federal level and the Australian people’s high opinion of Kevin Rudd remains undiminished. India and the Indian community in Australia cannot pin their hopes on the return of Liberal government for uranium sales to India. Every stakeholder needs to work on this.
The arrival of Sri Lankan refugees in boats has caused a deep polarisation in the Australian community and the Indonesian solution espoused by the Rudd Government to solve the refugee problem has failed. Australia needs to develop an Asian solution to this and also involve India to stem the flow of refugees across Indian Ocean and work closely to resolve problems related to ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka.
At present the warmth is missing in the relationship between the two countries but with sustained efforts a special relationship can be forged.
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