Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Going beyond cricket

Musings by Shekhar Nambiar

Australia is the flavour of the month. Labour’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was in India, and by coincidence or design, their cricket team is here too. They’ve had a Test series and now move on to playing ODI matches.

The bilateral relationship has no doubt grown leaps and bounds since the lukewarm days immediatelyfollowing India’s Pokhran-II series nuclear tests by the NDA-led government of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on May 13, 1998. 

Australian prime minister with his skipper and Indian prime minister with his captain.

The challenge thereafter and earlier was to find a common ground. For India, Australia then was a country down under and relationships with the west, USSR and the US made more strategic and economic sense. For long, Australia was wary of India’s nonaligned policy. It made little sense to them. The ‘whites only’ immigration meant there were not many people of Indian heritage in Australia, until of course the White Australia policy in force since the turn of the century was renounced in 1973 byPrime Minister Whitlam. Today, Australia has immigrants from some 10 different regions of the world.

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Cricket was what made sense and for a long time remained the only plank for a convergence of interests. All talk of the English language and the Commonwealth connection, a legacy from the colonial past with the British, remained just matters in speeches and joint statements.

ANZAC soldiers in Gollipoli campaign

Going a long way back

India’s historic links with Australia go a long way back. Some 15,000 Indian soldiers fought with the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps at Gallipoli (soldiers of Anzacs) during World War I. ANZAC Day, which commemorates the battle of the Anzacs, is observed by Australians across the world on April 25.

Canberra, Australia’s capital, was designed by the American architect Walter Burley Griffin, who moved to Lucknow to design buildings and lived there until his death in 1937. He was buried in Lucknow’s Nishatganj Cemetery. Lake Burley Griffin, the artificial lake designed by Griffin along with the National Triangle in Canberra, is a reminder of the architect’s contributions to building the capital city.

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Canberra’s population is around 500,000 compared to Delhi’s 32.9 million plus. It is accessible by road from Melbourne in Victoria and from Sydney in New South Wales. The city is located in a bowl within the Murray Darling Basin at an elevation. The forested climb up from the Pacific Ocean coast is exhilarating and scenic with tall eucalyptus trees lining both sides of the road.

Diplomatic relations were established as early as 1945, before India’sindependence, and there were flights to and from each country. Melbourne, Australia’s seat of government, before the capital moved to Canberra in 1927, remained etched in Indian minds for a very long time.Since the 1986 visit of then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to Australia, there were hardly any prime ministerial visits until June 2000 when John Howard, Prime Minister of the Liberal-National coalition, made a path-breaking visit to India. Since then, there have been a string of high-level exchanges and it’s been a forward movement, barring the scars of the attacks on Indian students in Melbourne in 2009. The souring of relations then, albeit for a brief period, was the lowest ebb since Pokhran-II.

Quad alliance among India, US, Japan and Australia, a check on China.

Interests converge 

The two seem to have come a fair bit from those days and are  chumming up. Call it convergence of interests or the perception of a bigger and stronger role for India in the Indo-Pacific, India and Australia are now partners in the Quad, a quasi-grouping with strategic objectives in mind. It’s quite unlike NATO, which is a purely defence alliance.

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The Quad was formalised by the late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2007 but took almost a decade to get going, largely due to Australia’s lack of enthusiasm for fear of antagonising China. It can help meet strategic interests of a non-military nature, even act as a potential counterbalance to Chinese muscle-flexing not only in the region but also as a global player.

A rising China under Xi Jinping has been redrwing global politics

China’s rise

China’s rise has been keenly observed both in India and Australia. The Indo-Pacific, a relatively new construct, is literally a bigger sphere of influence stretching upto the erstwhile Soviet central republics down to the Pacific, larger than the Asia Pacific, and one in which India can and is playing a bigger role as a middle power.

The Quad, with Japan and the US included, is a fairly loud voice. The rumblings in Beijing are proof that China fears the Quad to be a counter in what it construes as its region of influence, primarily its control and influence of the shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean, Malacca Straits, and not to speakof its vice-like grip on the South China Sea.

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With the Indo-Pacific, China could feel increasingly threatened especially to OBOR, One Belt One Road strategic initiative that will beef up its economic interests. China has tested its new found influence in south-west Asia and the Arab world, with the success it has had in bringing Iran and Saudi Arabia together.

India and Australia have been playing cricket with the first of the three ODIs matches being played on Friday, 17 March, at Wankhede stadium in Mumbai.

Cricket diplomacy 

Talking of cricket, India and Australia have been at it for long. Albanese began his first visit to India as PM with an event at Ahmedabad’s Narendra Modi Cricket Stadium, along with the host, Prime Minister Modi. Call it optics or whatever, the event proved to be the setting for a perfect start to the visit.

I cannot but not go back in time to recall the cricket series of 1969-70. The Aussies led by Bill Lawry were a formidable team. The gentleman cricketer Simpson had stepped down as captain and the team had the likes of Keith Stackpole, Ian Chappell and Graham McKenzie, among others.

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I went to the Kotla to see the third Test match. My first at a cricket match. The experience was exciting and thrilling, certainly different from listening to the radio although I’d grown up with the commentaries of greats such as Anant Setalvad and before him, the legendary VM Chakrapani, who I think had been poached by Radio Australia by then and was no longer on Indian soil.

I could spot all my favourite Indian heroes, Pataudi, Wadekar, Vishwanath, Solkar and a few others.

The famous Indian spinners (L to R) Venkataraghavan, Bishan Singh Bedi, Prasanna and Chandrasekhar.

Spinners trio

The trio of spinners – Bedi, Prasanna and Venkataraghavan – made a match of it. Prasanna and Bedi, between them, took the lion’s share of wickets in a low-scoring Test match. 

A prized possession that I cherished for decades was a box of candies my father bought me at the Ferozeshah Kotla grounds. It had an image of the Aussie team playing. Years later I got to see the Gabba, visit the SCG Sydney and the Melbourne Cricket Ground as also the offices of Cricket Australia. The sporting statues at MCG – that of Don Bradman and Dennis Lillee among others – were most impressive and lifelike. I was privileged to be admitted into the dressing rooms, the exclusive exhibition area, and a feel of the beautifully manicured ground that was being tended for by water hoses and fountains. The Canberra oval, I have to add, is a quaint ground with only a wicket gate that allows you to peep in, which I did on the way to the Manuka shopping area, a pretty city suburb. If memory serves me right, I did catch a glimpse of a match being played at the oval.

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Economic relations

Relations between the two nations have come a long way from the seventies and eighties. Australia has a lot to gain from a growing India. Earlier, the ECTA (Australia-India Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement) came into force on December 29 last. It will facilitate streamlining two-way trade and access to each other’s products. Both countries will no doubt benefit with new opportunities. Australia will gain with greater access to India’s 1.4 billion people and one of the fastest growing economies. Tariff cuts will benefit products, including wool, lamb, barley, oats, metallic ores, non-ferrous metals and titanium dioxide, find their way to India. Australian wine too will have access to India on better terms.

Reduction or elimination in tariffs of Indian imports into Australia will benefit Indian exporters and businesses. Benefits will also accrue to suppliers of higher and adult education, business services, R&D, construction and engineering services, tourism and travel.

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The agreement will complement the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, and the joint efforts in the Quad and the Indo Pacific Economic Framework, to tackle the Climate Change challenge and the security of the region the two countries are in, among others.

Attack on Hindu temple in Australia by pro-Khalistan elements

Reciprocity in relations

Equally, reciprocity in relationships is important and respected. Australia will need to be sensitive to Indian interests. Prime Minister Modi raised the issue of attacks and slander against the Indian community and their religious rights by certain sections that are inimical to India’s interests.

Australia can and must prevent any such activities and ensure these are nipped in the bud. Earlier this week, the honorary Indian consulate in Brisbane had to be closed following protest blockings of the road leading to the building.

With education an important plank in the relations, Australia must protect the interests of Indian students should there be any attacks, racial or otherwise, on them. India has allowed Deakin to set up an offshore campus, and this is an important step in ease of doing business in India, something PM Modi has time and again assured foreign businesses.

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Aussie universities

While an Australian education is the dream of many an Indian student, Indians now figure among the top three nations who contribute to Australia’s immigrant pool. 

Several Australian universities, including the University of Melbourne, University of NSW, feature in the Top 10 or 12 of the world’s leading universities. Time was, particularly in the early sixties and seventies, when very few Australian universities were known to Indians, except for a few, notable among them being the Australian National University, or ANU.

Ms Sonia Sadiq Gandhi (right) with Australia’s High Commissioner to India, Barry O’Farrell 

People-to-people links

In India’s relations with countries – notably the UK and USA – the Diaspora’s participation in the mainstream of life in the adopted country has helped take bilateral ties to the next level.

Over the years, the US in particular had attracted top brains from India. The Indian Diaspora’s contributions have been in varied spheres of life, including as top scientists, researchers, academics in all major disciplines, doctors and civil engineers before the New Economy’s influx of IT and computer engineers.

Whether Yale, Columbia, Harvard, Stanford or MIT, Indians have made their mark in almost all spheres of human activity in the US – sciences, law, humanities, space research, artificial intelligence and robotics, to name a few.

In Australia, Indians are second to none. Business, academics and in research, they have played a part and made their mark. People of Indian origin figure in the Australia Day Honours List. Although they still believe in ye dilmaange mor when it comes to visiting India and knowing about the goings-on in India, they are as law-abiding and hardworking as any other immigrant community.

The India Australia Business and Community Alliance is one of the relatively newer groups that offer a platform to the community for bringing peoples in both countries to come closer, work with both governments, and celebrate achievements through an Annual Awards event, which moved for the first time out of Australia to Mumbai and Delhi in February this year. The ‘Immersion Programme’ brought alumni, award winners and business leaders to experience India, exchange views at a summit, and savour the culture and flavours of their country of origin.

The founder of IABCA, as the initiative is known by, is Sonia Sadiq Gandhi, whose enterprise and belief in partnerships building and business matching has brought peoples together. Sydney-based Sonia has been in Australia for 24 years and sees the prospects for the bilateral relations bright and full of promise.

It’s people like her who will be taking this blossoming relationship to greater heights.

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Shekhar Nambiar
Shekhar Nambiar
Shekhar is a communications professional who has spent a good deal of time in international organizations and in the development sector. As he puts it, it's been an "exciting journey" for him, beginning his working life as a journalist, with some of the best editors and professionals, before venturing into public affairs and then forays in the private sector. He believes "every day brings new challenges, achievements and success, and the key is to play a small part in whatever it is that you're doing". He tries to keep pace with new tech, and learn a new word a day, of course, "Gen Z lingo!"


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