Modi's leadership has generated excitement in Australian business

  • Amitabh Mattoo
  • Updated: Nov 13, 2014 00:21 IST

It is difficult not to be overwhelmed by the significance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Australia which begins on Saturday with the G20 Summit in Brisbane and then a three-city bilateral visit.

It follows on from the hugely successful visit of the Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, to India in early September, during which a bilateral nuclear safeguards agreement was signed, paving the way for Australia to sell India uranium.

The comprehensive 36-paragraph joint statement, issued after Abbott's visit, reflected the unprecedented convergence of values and interests between the two countries and the potential of a formidable strategic partnership that could help redefine Asia for the future.

Modi is the first Indian prime minister to visit Australia since Rajiv Gandhi and Bob Hawke struck a chord 28 years ago. For that reason alone his presence would be remarkable. But this visit is not just about summitry: It is an extravaganza celebrating all things Indian, an announcement of India's arrival on the global stage. And while at home there are those who still feel disquiet about the Modi government, there is virtually none Down Under.

The diaspora, big business, the federal and state governments have embraced the idea of Modi as the leader of a government which will not just transform India, but will ensure a greater economic and strategic balance in Asia and, of course, give the bilateral relationship the importance and the fillip it deserves.

The biggest shift has come in the attitude of Australian businesspeople - hardnosed, calculating, unsentimental - that have been, with some notable exceptions, bearish about India until now.

Recall that in the early 1990s, Telstra, Australia's largest telecommunications and media company, was among the first to enter India's market, but pulled out after it found it too hard to penetrate. The story of the ANZ Banking Group was no different.

Consider now the contrast. On the afternoon of November 18, I will be moderating an unprecedented roundtable of Australian CEOs with the Indian prime minister at Melbourne's Government House. In attendance will be some of the biggest names in Australian business - Andrew Mackenzie, CEO of BHP Billiton, Australia's (and on some measures, the world's) largest mining company; Anthony Pratt, the chairman of its largest privately-owned paper and packaging company and Mike Smith, CEO of ANZ Banking Group.

Today, in conversations business leaders like these speak of Modi as another Lee Kuan Yew - a benevolent, decisive, incorruptible leader with a vision to transform his country and the political will to deliver real change. And they see in his non-ideological pragmatism something of Deng Xiaoping, who rescued China from the wreckage of the Cultural Revolution.

Modi, with his usual fondness for alliteration, sees India's unique selling point as its unbeatable combination of the Three Ds, democracy, demand and demography - that is, the rule of law, its huge market of nearly 300 million middle-class Indians, and the youth bulge of more 500 million Indians under the age of 25, who could become part of a global workforce in an otherwise ageing world. This vision has captured the imagination of corporate Australia.

Added to this is the possibility that a bilateral free-trade agreement (the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement) could be realised within the next 12 months, and Australia India bilateral trade relations could move beyond commodities to acquire real robustness.

Beyond economics, there is the concern shared in Canberra and New Delhi about security and stability in the India-Pacific region. Both India and Australia have deep economic relations with China but both are equally concerned about Beijing's aggressive behaviour in the recent past, and would prefer the region not to be dominated by any one hegemonic power.

In the past, Canberra has shied away from an explicit military partnership with India, Japan and the United States. This may well change in the coming months, as both Modi and Abbott are seen as China sceptics, who are willing to assess China's rise and its consequences for the region with more realism.

There are reports that the Quadrilateral Dialogue among Japan, India, Australia and the United States could also be revived. Clearly, in an Asia marked by instability and uncertainty, the new India-Australia concord - rooted in both geostrategy and economics - will have wider consequences for stability and balance in the region.

The PM will cover almost the entire east coast of Australia as he visits Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne. In Brisbane, with the other G20 leaders, Modi will seek to advance strategies for stimulating global growth and for improving economic resilience.

After the summit he will unveil a bust of Mahatma Gandhi and attend a business breakfast and a reception in his honour; in Sydney he will speak to a crowd of nearly 20,000 from the Indian diaspora before attending yet another reception.

In Canberra, he will become the first Indian prime minister to address both houses of the Australian Parliament before holding discussions with Abbott.

In Melbourne, as well as the CEOs' roundtable, Modi will address 500 business leaders and attend a massive reception and dinner for him hosted by the Australian prime minister at the hallowed Melbourne Cricket Ground.

Few can remember an Indian leader who demonstrated this kind of chutzpah - an approach to leadership that seems to be energising citizens in India and wowing audiences internationally.

In a much different way, only Rajiv Gandhi had as big an impact, on the international stage, in such a short period of time.

And what is equally fortunate is that Abbott and Modi seem to get along at least as well as Gandhi and Hawke did nearly three decades ago.

Clearly, the time could not have been better for India's relations with Australia.

(Amitabh Mattoo is CEO, the Australia India Institute, and professor of International Relations at the University of Melbourne)

(The views expressed by the author are personal)

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