Taking ties beyond cricket, curry and commonwealth


The racial dust storm seems to have settled down. So has media frenzy. As Australia prepares to neutralise its alleged ‘racist’ image and looks forward to better relations with India, it may be a happy coincidence that the new High Commissioner in New Delhi will be an Australian of Indian origin, Peter Joseph Noozhumurry Varghese.

The Indian origin alone is not what makes Varghese’s assignment conspicuous. It is also symbolic of Australia’s serious commitment towards establishing and cultivating better bilateral ties with India. For, unlike most of his predecessors, deputed at the fag end of their tenure, Varghese has been chosen at the peak of his diplomatic career, for obvious reasons.

Indo-Australian relations had seen more ups than downs of late viz., from the bungling of Dr Mohammad Haneef’s appalling arrest to the row between two cricketers Harbhajan Singh and Mathew Heyden and the recent attacks on Indian students. India’s active interest in Australia began after the ‘Look East’ policy, developed during the governments of Prime Ministers P V Narsimha Rao (1991-1996) and Atal Behari Vajpayee (1998-2004). Prior to that, Australia was more like ‘a persistent suitor and India its most unwilling bride.’

The warmth of this steadily developed association, through the 1990s, however, suffered a setback, following Australia’s violent reaction to India’s nuclear tests of Pokhran in 1998. It withdrew its  High Commissioner from New Delhi, imposed sanctions, including suspension of ministerial (and official level) visits and defence relations. Only the changed US attitude, and President Bill Clinton’s much celebrated India visit in 2000, made Australia soften its attitude.

Australian prime minister John Howard’s two visits to India in 2000 and 2006 were followed by a series of ministerial and significant discussions in later years. A trade and economic framework agreement, an air service agreement, MoUs on cooperation in the areas of biotechnology, customs, defence and a letter of intent on establishing a strategic research fund were amongst the highlights of Howard’s visit.

The Howard government’s waiver to supply uranium, in view of India’s ‘very good non-proliferation track record,’ for its insatiable need for power to meet rapid industry development,  was soon revoked by the new Rudd government, forbidding uranium supply to any country that had not signed  the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). But the Rudd government has shown commitment towards an even stronger bilateral trade and economic relationship through a Foreign Trade Agreement (FTA), complementing traditional strengths in trade ties by new avenues, such as education.

The Australia-India Strategic Research Fund (2006), Australia's largest bilateral scientific research venture, has fostered close collaboration among Indo-Australian scientists.  Australia will match India’s contribution, by providing A$20 million over five years, to support a range of high quality joint projects and workshops.

Australia and India also share interests in the stability and economic development of the Asia-Pacific region, and in multilateral cooperation.

Cricket has remained an abiding passion for sports lovers in both the countries, apart from being a part of diplomatic rhetoric as well. If cricket has nurtured cordial relations and, more importantly, given business worth millions of dollars to both the countries over the years, delicious Indian cuisine has also simply clean bowled other cuisines. So much so that even Rudd recently quipped, “Imagine if we didn't have Indian food, we would have had 100 years of English food -- would you subject anyone to that?” Australia has beckoned many Indian filmmakers to shoot movies and dance sequences. From 1940s when an Australian actress became the famous whip yielding (hunter wali) Nadia on the Indian film screen, to Feroz Khan’s scripting Australia into his film Janasheen, Bollywood has captured Australia in several Hindi and Tamil films. Australia’s engagement with India is expanding rapidly and both the countries are aspiring to transcend the bilateral relations beyond the proverbial Three Cs—Cricket, Curry and the Commonwealth.

However, in the perceptive words of Sujatha Singh, high commissioner of India in Australia, the most significant is ‘Fourth C’ that stands for Commerce. Is it, then, not high time that India’s prime minister, after Rajiv Gandhi’s last visit in 1986, makes a trip to the cherished land of Waltzing Matilda, soon, to help nurse a renaissance of India-Australia relations?

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