By Rekha Bhattacharjee
It was a 2008 review of the Indo-Australian bilateral relations by two University of Adelaide academics (Peter Mayer and Purnendra Jain) which gave us this apt descriptive phrase – silence punctuated by hiccups. If the media reports, and Australian government press releases, are to be believed, the hiccups would be soon relegated to the past as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s recent three-day India visit is likely to infuse a new dynamism into the bilateral relationship.
‘Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recognises our future is linked to India’ read a headline in an Australian newspaper on Friday. The Liberal Prime Minister has been clearly enthused by the prospects India’s teeming one billion population presents. The emergence of India as a major player in the Indo-Pacific region seems to have found resonance with Australian Prime Minister who opined that the South Asian economic powerhouse is “enormously important”.
“It is evolving into an economic superpower and one that will have the regional military and strategic clout that comes with that kind of economic strength,” Malcolm Turnbull said while addressing media in Mumbai Wednesday. Australian PM’s unmistakable enthusiasm for India seems to have brushed off media too as the news publications and portals were awash with editorials and front page news articles on the Indian economy, up skill 400 million Indian youth, strategic importance, Narendra Modi, etc. Malcolm Turnbull had labelled India “the land of promise” before boarding his Royal Australia Air Force plane showing New Delhi as its destination. The number of Memorandum of Understandings (MOUs) signed during the visit, and overall bonhomie, is a testimony to the fact that the visit was a resounding success.
The six agreements signed with India cover cooperation in combating international terrorism and transnational organised crime; promotion and development of cooperation in civil aviation security; environment, climate and wildlife; MoU on cooperation in earth observation and satellite navigation; MoU on cooperation in sports and cooperation in the field of health and medicine.
“... you see the cooperation here that we’re going to, that’s going to result from this new initiative, it’s got strong support from the Indian Prime Minister Mr Modi and very strong support from our Government,” Turnbull said in Mumbai while answering a journalist’s question about cooperation between India and Australia Wednesday.
Turnbull is under no illusions on what can be achieved and a free trade agreement with India in the near future is definitely off the table for at least the foreseeable future. “It may be that the conclusion will be reached that the parties are too far apart to enable a deal to be reached at this time,” Prime Minister Turnbull said.
“We have a great economic relationship and it’s getting stronger all the time and it will grow whether or not there is a free trade agreement but it would obviously be enhanced if there was,” he added.
The reasons behind the change in Australia’s policies towards India are not far to seek. The major reason is, of course, the accelerated growth rate of the Indian economy which is likely to overtake even the US well before this century comes to an end. There are other micro reasons too which would fuel a vigorous upswing in the Indo-Australian bilateral relations.
The increasing number of Indian migrants in Australia is one such reason which could be guiding Australian political parties’ policies for the second most populous country in the world. According to the Australian census figures released earlier this week, Indians were Victoria’s highest migrant group, beating England, which held the top spot at the last Census in 2011.
A snapshot of 2016 census finds the typical migrant to Victoria is now an Indian woman, 43-years-old and speaks English. It is not surprising that Indian expatriates living Down Under have found a mention in the joint statement released before PM Turnbull’s departure from India.
“The prime ministers underscored the vital role of people-to-people links and especially of the vibrant Indian-origin community in Australia, which makes a strong contribution to Australian society and to the growing bilateral relations,” the joint statement reads.
It would be a while before one could comment on the gains made by the charismatic Malcolm Turnbull in dollar terms, the images of a barefoot Australian Prime Minister bowing to the Indian divinities at Delhi’s trans-Yamuna Akshardham temple would linger in people’s memory for a long time to come.
(Rekha Bhattacharjee is a veteran journalist resident in Sydney. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent on: firstname.lastname@example.org)