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A media-driven view of the Australia-India relationship November 25, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Weigold, Auriol , trackback

Auriol Weigold

With a bilateral relationship that is barely warm according to the Indian media, Mr Rudd’s first visit to New Delhi in mid-November advocating a stronger relationship with India was greeted by a hostile press and headlines such as The Times of India’s on 11 November: “Aussie PM to arrive on damage control”.  A comment in the same newspaper proposed that Rudd had a “formidable task” in laying the basis for a strategic relationship between the two nations.

The Sydney Morning Herald echoed this message a few days later, adding that the “stop-start” progress of the past had to be overcome.   The Rudd Government stated early in its period in government that it was committed to engagement with India, but Canberra appears to have chalked up a negative score in the Indian media since its election, and this is not a new problem.

Over time Australia has ignored India for lengthy periods and this has been reciprocated, casting a long shadow over the bilateral relationship since the early days of Indian independence. A shadow never quite dissipated, the right signals proving elusive, the right moment to engage substantially never quite there.Despite our Prime Minister’s intentions he and Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, have reportedly agreed that the relationship has not been nurtured as it should have been, although practical trade and investment flourish. This is a well-established re-start point but positive messages from the two Prime Ministers about their recent discussions out of sight of the media should be disseminated.

While the bilateral relationship may not prove strong enough at the moment to take it to the level of a strategic partnership this has been flagged. Rudd and Singh referred to a qualitative shift to an emerging partnership that might be seen to demonstrate collaboration, giving a fillip to the relationship, crucial for building regional peace and stability.

It has been argued in both countries’ media that Australia should seek a magic bullet. Should Australia take the initiative it would not be the first time it has done so. Australian policy decisions have pushed the relationship to the present low ebb as represented by the Indian media, the matter of the security and safety of Indian students in Australia simmers on.  It has given rise to a media frenzy in India, including the assertion that racism in this country is alive and well.  Neither the Minister of Education nor the Prime Minister have succeeded in hosing-down this opportunity for Australia-bashing.

The racist accusation was rejected by the Prime Minister, who spoke instead about our culture of acceptance and toleration. Nor did he deem an apology necessary in this season of apologies.  The underlying shadow of a racist Australia harks back to White Australia policy days which remain close to the surface in some Indian thinking.

From an Indian readership’s perspective the media has identified three substantial issues at a strategic level, on each of which the Rudd government has reportedly taken an unpopular line.

First, Australia’s opting for a neutral stance on the Arunachal Pradesh issue over which India and China have sparred in the recent past. While Dr Singh and Wen Jiabao have agreed in general terms to try to ensure peace and stability in the border areas, representatives of the Indian press have reported Australia’s neutrality on the Arunachal issue as giving legitimacy to China’view, a criticism that remains in play.

Second, Australia’s rejection of the Quadrilateral Initiative between Australia, India, Japan and the United States is seen in some quarters as also pandering to China.

Third, and arguably most important in India’s eyes, is the Australian Government’s reversal of the Howard Government decision to sell uranium to India.  Any discussion in Australia on this contentious issue is likely to remain a no-go area at least during this parliamentary term, this despite its symbolic value to India as a demonstration that the bilateral relationship’s success matters.

Such views expressed in segments of India’s media paint a picture of a bilateral relationship in need of revival.  If, during the Prime Ministers’ discussions a way forward was agreed to, a statement from both governments might shift the negative media debate.