Australia’s Opportunity With ‘Modi’fied India

Australia’s Opportunity With ‘Modi’fied India

The world just witnessed the biggest democratic exercise yet in the history of mankind with over 814 million people in India given the opportunity to elect their next government. The results were equally overwhelming and historic with a massive mandate for a single party rule after a gap of 30 years.

Mr. Narendra Damodardas Modi, the former Chief Minister of Gujarat who spear headed BJPs campaign, was sworn in as the 15th Prime Minister of Independent India.

After a period of sluggish growth and a series of corruption scandals, Mr.Modi’s landslide victory has raised hopes of economic recovery and job creation, particularly amongst India’s 550 million youth. The Rupee has started strengthening and the stock exchanges have turned bullish, indicating a turn around in business sentiments.

What does this mean for Australia’s India policy?

As someone who represented the Australian federal and state governments in India for nearly 2 decades until last year and worked closely with the Gujarat government to promote trade & investments, my numerous interactions with Mr. Modi & his team were more than mere handshakes and photo ops.

As the Senior Trade Commissioner of SA government in India, I had the opportunity to work closely with his Government to organize several trade events, business missions as well as the then Premier’s visit to Gujarat, perhaps the first instance of an Australian Premier officially calling on Mr. Modi, post 2002 embargo. Mr.Modi had invited me to be a Speaker at The Vibrant Gujarat 2011- his flagship & one of India’s most high profile international investment summits.

With this first hand experience of knowing and working up and close with Mr.Modi, I would like to share some thoughts on what the Australian government and businesses could expect from the ‘Modi’fied government and perhaps some tips to engage with New Delhi more effectively.

To start with, it will be unabashedly ‘Mr.Modi’s government. He will be a hands-on Prime Minister and will play a dominant role in all aspects of New Delhi’s functioning, either domestic or foreign. His Ministers and bureaucrats are hand picked and trusted to take decisions. I did not see him rely on his aides during any of my meetings, as he comes well prepared. His office is generally prompt and has responded to me even after hours.

This would be a big relief to our diplomats in New Delhi & Canberra who were getting used to tardy responses to even minor requests. I expect Australia’s bilateral discussions to now gather speed and the FTA negotiations, which have moved at a snail’s pace, to be fast tracked.

In his quest for ‘minimum government and maximum governance’, Mr.Modi has significantly reduced cabinet size merging many ministries. He is also tech savvy and uses social media extensively. I understand e-mails and whatsapp are already replacing paper for internal communications. This means more transparency, speed and effectiveness in his day-to-day governance, a major plank on which he has won. Australians would be happy to deal with lesser layers of bureaucracy.

As an extremely business friendly Prime Minister, stepping up reforms and opening up more sectors for foreign investment can be expected despite his party’s nationalistic ‘swadeshi’ leaning. Large infrastructure projects, including multi billion dollar industrial corridors, will be implemented. Introduction of GST and tax reforms are also most likely making it easier to do business with India, a parameter on which the World Bank currently ranks it at a dismal 134th.

On foreign relations, Mr. Modi has shown his keenness to closely engage with India’s neighbors and strategic partners. While China, Japan, Singapore and a few other countries may be within his immediate vision, Australia would need to work hard to get into this circle. It needs to ensure his visit to G20 meet later this year is fully leveraged, of course, without taking his visit for granted.

It would be in Australia’s interest to convince the new government to allocate a dedicated resource for ‘Australia desk’ in the Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi. Currently, there is just one joint secretary handling nearly 2 dozen countries, and Australia happens to be one of them.

How do we effectively connect with the new regime?

Most certainly, ‘Modi’fied India will be very different to any of the previous regimes. An extremely confident, proud and nationalistic PM who has almost single handedly swept his party to power and has unchallenged authority both within his party and in the parliament has the capability to take long leaps.

While the benefits of Australia’s effective engagement with India can be substantial, the cost of failure could also be high. With Modi government, Australia would do well to respond with a bit more maturity than in the past to sensitive issues like ‘attack on Indian students’. Diplomatic measures such as those imposed post ‘Pokhran’ in 1998 could attract a more belligerent reaction than the previous BJP regime under Mr.Vajpayee.

After the ‘lost decade,’ it is a great opportunity for Australia to engage with India afresh. But this chance could be easily floundered if it doesn’t change its approach to adapt to the new realities. Half hearted and ad hoc approaches should make way for serious, long-term strategic policies. Armchair experts and envoys with outdated knowledge still tending to rely on ‘Cricket, Curries and Commonwealth diplomacy’ need to realize the damage they inflict on this important and delicate relationship. Specialists with real, practical and contemporary knowledge and expertise on India should take charge.

Whatever be the justification, it is not a great story for Australia’s diplomatic success with New Delhi that no Indian PM has visited Australia in 28 years. It is perhaps time for some radical changes and to launch a parallel ‘track 2 diplomacy’ involving professionals of Indian origin, former diplomats and people with experience and influence to supplement the official channels.

About the Author

AK Tareen represented Austrade and SA Governments in India between 1995 and 2013 before seeking retirement as The Senior Trade Commissioner last year. He has since established AKT Strategic Consulting LLP that provides strategic advice, assistance and representation services to foreign governments and businesses in India.

Tareen is an Australian Citizen of Indian origin and works very closely with the Governments, businesses and opinion makers in both countries. He is considered one of the senior most Australian experts in India and recognized with several prestigious awards. He is regularly invited to speak at major business events and featured extensively in the Media.

For further details, please refer to www.aktconsulting.co or contact him on tareen@aktconsulting.co

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