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Australia’s view of modern India ‘outdated’ April 23, 2012

Posted by southasiamasala in : Guest authors, India , trackback

Richard Iles, Griffith University

Indian life becomes a sluggish stream, living in the past, moving slowly through the accumulation of dead centuries—Pandit Nehru, The discovery of India (1946).

Australia needs to better understand Indian business thinking. Outdated and narrow images of India abound. However, in the world of economic thought and business practice India is dynamic, hard-edged and likely to be the source of renewed economic thought.

However, Australian business and social views of India are sluggish, not having deepened for several decades. This neglect represents decay in real terms. India has developed rapidly over the past two decades, with many other developed countries strongly investing in their relationship with India during this time.

Department of Business Management, University of Calcutta

Australian research activity focused on India, as surveyed by the Australia–India Institute (University of Melbourne), has declined steadily over several decades. The knowledge base from which the Australian business community, students and the wider community can draw to assist their investment in India has withered.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s speech at Asialink announcing the White Paper on Australia’s strategic approach to engaging with Asia reflects the narrow and simplistic view of modern India. She identified India as an English-speaking country, and therefore Western in its thought. This view shows a significant misunderstanding of India now, as well as the ingredients of India’s exciting growth trajectory.

The simplification is damaging to Australia’s economic national interests. It perpetuates the idea that conducting business in India is analogous to doing business in Western, English-speaking countries.

As India’s self-confidence rises and it embraces its emerging identity as a global economic and strategic power, Australia’s intellectual and business engagement with India takes on renewed importance. Continued under-investment in our understanding of modern India will limit our opportunities to grow with India and benefit from its growth.

Within India’s business and intellectual communities, the calls are growing for distinctly Indian economic and business theory and practices to emerge and guide India’s development. Western economic theory and business practice, which have never fitted well with India, are no longer viewed as the standard bearers.

This call for Indian-specific theory and practice was the underlying theme of the Indian Institute of Management – Ahmedabad (ranked globally in the top 10 MBA programs by the Financial Times) Doctoral Colloquium in January 2012. The message was repeatedly expressed that the Indian paradigm is more important than the Western paradigm and is valued in the international context. Therefore, the need to borrow from the Western paradigm is more limited. Greater opportunities exist for expressing Indian ideas.

The Indian paradigm is likely to generate increased economic and business thinking that is increasingly distinct from Western logic and thought. Australia should be preparing to position itself to exploit the opportunities that will arise with distinctly Indian business thinking it one of the world’s largest developing middle-class consumer markets.

The former Indian finance minister, Manmohan Singh, declared in his Budget speech on 24 July 1991, “Let the whole world hear it loud and clear. India is now wide-awake. We shall prevail. We shall overcome”. In contrast to the portrayal of pre-independence India by Nehru and Australia’s current sluggish views of India, the first set of economic reforms awakened a renewed period of Indian development, thought and self-expression.

India offers rich opportunities to those willing to take the time to appreciate it as it is now and as it sees itself. One measure of the increasing influence of Indian economic and business thought is the growing number of economic and business intellectual leaders of Indian origin heading up the world’s leading business schools. A survey in the Hindustan Times (29 January 2012) outlines the growing list of economics and business academics of Indian origin leading business schools (Harvard University, University of Chicago, Cornell University, Dartmouth College), not to mention leading academics in various business fields.

Now is not the time to resign from actively engaging in India. Some notable Australian economists and Asia experts acknowledge that Australia has missed the boat with respect to business engagement with India. However, these thinkers are silent on how Australia is to re-energise a productive relationship (Big Ideas, 9 September 2011—ABC TV, hosted by the Australian National University and overseen by White Paper committee member Professor Peter Drysdale).

To appreciate and harness India’s emergent economic opportunities, it is apparent that aspects of current business and social attitudes and perceptions of India need to change. Investment at personal, intellectual and business levels of engagement is necessary. For Australia to maximise the benefits of the free trade agreement currently being negotiated, strategic rethinking is necessary.

Examples of investment strategies in India from other countries give us some guide. The US Government is funding the Hindi–Urdu Flagship at the University of Texas. The US Government pays tuition fees for a degree in any area of study, as long as undergraduate students take a concurrent major in Hindi and Urdu. This represents a significant US investment in developing a greater understanding of Indian thought and practice.

The pharmaceutical company GSK (UK head-quarters) is, for the first time, holding its global executive meeting in India in 2012. Although India makes up only approximately 8 per cent of GSK global sales, this decision recognises the emerging importance of India to the company. The meeting will expose all GSK’s global leaders to issues and opportunities of doing business in India.

Debate in Australia concerning our Asian engagement is already on the national agenda. In particular, this must now maturely encompass the importance of India to Australia’s economic and business development.

Richard Iles is a PhD student in Economics at Griffith University and a visiting scholar at Delhi School of Economics, India.

This article first appeared in the most recent edition of the Asian Currents.


1. Mark Jones - May 2, 2012

You’re right to assert that “Australian business and social views of India are sluggish, not having deepened for several decades.” and that it can be empirically shown that research into the broad subject that is India has declined to the point that our feeble knowledge base of the country is damaging to our national interests.
Quite why this is so is a complex matter. Most of our India focussed academics picked up their interest in the country back in the 70s when India was a very different place. Then it was largely seen a society that offered an alternative to the modernity of the West and offered a romantic landscape for people to indulge their orientalist fantasies about the exotic other.
But we are seeing a “transformation of modernity which calls for a re-thinking of the humanities and the social sciences “so reliant on “universalistic social theory” which is “now both out of date and provincial” (Beck and Sznaider, 2006: 1, Beck and Grande, 2010: 410) As you make clear, India is now a thriving creative author of the new world and the refuses to conform to our traditional theories and understandings. We need a new generation of academics to deal with and generate knowledge the new India. People free of 20th Century’s notion that the world can only be understood through knowledge developed in the West.

Mark Jones

2. Richard Iles - May 11, 2012

Hi Mark,
Thanks for taking the time to post your thoughts.
I agree that new and old India specialists are needed in Australia. But I would go further to say that Australia needs to expose the wider community to the many opportunities that are likely to arise from a closer relationship with India and South Asia.
Irrespective of politics, I am pleased that Hindi received a mention on the Coalition’s recent press statement on improving the teaching and learning of Asian languages. See http://www.liberal.org.au/Latest-News/2012/05/10/The-Coalitions-Plan-to-Revive-Foreign-Language-Study.aspx