Take two continent-sized countries. Throw in a shared and wholesome passion for cricket. Weed out memories of ill-mannered cricket tours of recent years and of alleged ‘racist attacks’ on Indian students in Australia. Add a pinch of Masterchef garam masala, brought all the way from Australia. Garnish with a civilian nuclear agreement and the prospect of uranium sales to India. Bring to slow boil. And there, you have the recipe for vastly enhanced Indo-Australian relations, served at the high table that they share today.
As Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard begins her official visit to India, the two countries have reason to believe that they’ve turned a new page in bilateral relations, which even until a few years ago was characterised by bitterness over the alleged ‘racial’ attacks on Indian students in Australia, and the Indian cricket team’s infamous ‘monkeygate’ tour of Australia in 2008.
Gillard started off her visit with an enormous harvest of goodwill, conferring a rare Australian honour on cricketing legend Sachin Tendulkar by conferring him with the Membership of the Order of Australia. Given Tendulkar’s special place in cricket, and the arguable proposition that he has perhaps ‘out-Bradmanned Bradman’, it was a soft power gesture that is certain to be well-received in India — even though it has triggered quite an uproar back home in Australia.
For all the feistiness with which both India and Australia play their cricket, and even given the on-field bitterness of that tour, the game has in many ways been a catalyst for healing in moments of friction. Indicatively, when Indian ‘students’ in Melbourne and Sydney became victims of opportunistic attacks in crime-ridden low-income neighbourhoods in 2009, the Indian media — in characteristic fashion — hyperbolically played up as “racist attacks”. Profoundly embarrassed community and police leaders in Melbourne immediately organised a friendly ‘street cricket match’ with Indian students, which became a defining moment in calming frayed nerves.
Over the next few days, Gillard and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — who are both on precarious parliamentary turf in their respective countries — will be looking to liberate relations between their two countries from the historical baggage of the past.
For perhaps the first time, the two countries will be looking to go beyond a ‘transactional’ view of their relationship — of looking to see ‘what’s in it for me’ — and framing it in rather more civilisational terms against the larger geostrategic and geoeconomic backdrop.
During her visit, Gillard will initiate a long process of discussions on a civil nuclear agreement (of the sorts that the US signed with India in 2005), which could eventually pave the way for uranium sales by Australia to India. Given that Australia was less than enthused by the US decision to waive stringent nuclear safeguards provisions as part of America’s effort under President George W Bush to enhance strategic ties with India, this reflects something of a departure from the national consensus in Australia on nuclear non-proliferation objectives.
Of course, Australia will still push for stringent nuclear safeguards in these talks, but just the fact that it is ready to engage with India, which is not a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), shows the distance that Australia has traversed on that road. Gillard has, in particular, been instrumental in bending the arc of Australian political will and lifting the ban on selling uranium to India.
But enhancing economic and trade ties with India, of which uranium sales is only one component, is also an important de-risking strategy for Australia, which has for too long been riding on the coat-tails of a booming China. The slowdown in China of recent times has exposed Australia’s commodities-driven economy to some ripple effects; improved trade relations with India, which despite the sharp slowdown, has the potential to grow faster and serve as an important market for Australian services.
With increasing Chinese assertiveness being felt in recent months in Australia’s neighbourhood in the South China Sea, Australia will also be looking to seek out common ground with India on securing and maintaining peace in the Asia-Pacific region. The Australian government is also formalising a white paper that will set out its geo-strategic prorities and goals in what is widely reckoned will be the ‘Asian century’. The enhanced relationship with India will form an important part of that jigsaw puzzle.
Australia and India have both experienced the horrors of jihadist violence (Australians, for instance, were killed in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks and in the 2002 Bali bombings), and Australia is keen to step up cooperation in such areas as intelligence sharing.
But as important as the emphasis on these hardcore strategic aspect of the relationship will be, the contours of the ties will be determined by the goodwill generated by soft power cultural interfaces, which are growing in intensity.
The enormous success of the MasterChef franchise in India is illustrative of these new-found and wholly unforeseen cultural influences.
In particular, the Australian media have been gorging on the feel-good story of Shipra Khanna, who won the MasterChef India title earlier this year, given her particularly poignant life story. Khanna, a young mother of two, was harassed for dowry and thrown out of her husband’s home. Her mother forced Khanna to sign up for the MasterChef India competition as a way for her to beat her depression, and Khanna turned to MasterChef Australia to hone her cooking skills and build up her culinary confidence.
When she won the title earlier this year, it solidified her resolve to rebuild her life on her own terms.
Much the same can be said of India and Australia today. And with a dash of garam masala to spice up things, they can’t go far wrong on that front.