The flurry of visits by Australian VIPs, from Prime Minister Kevin Rudd down in recent times was meant to offset all the bad press the country had been getting here following the repeated attacks on Indian students. But barely have these visits ended and an Indian student doubling up as a cab driver has been stabbed and a businessman found dead. The Australians, it would seem, can do no right in the eyes of India. Yes, maybe Indian students choose poorer, rougher areas in Australian cities to live in, and maybe they don’t make enough effort to fit in. But surely, none of these can excuse murderous attacks on students who are pouring vast sums of money into the Australian exchequer for the privilege of studying there.
But, we understand there is Australia and then there is Australia. Michael O’Brien, minister for employment, training and further education and science and technology all rolled into one, chafes at the thought of all Australians being tarred with the same brush. On a trip to India recently, he sought to convince the Indian authorities that south Australia, particularly Adelaide, was cast in a different mould altogether. A multicultural and tolerant part of the continent, it has not seen any racially motivated attacks on Indians. In fact, that neck of the woods in Australia has been wooing young Indians to work there with promises of cheaper and safer living standards. “We are very tough about law and order,” he says.
But O’Brien’s protestations notwithstanding, Australia has taken a real beating in the education stakes, thanks to the boorish behaviour of its rednecks towards foreign students, particularly Indians. True, Adelaide has its own student taskforce to look into the problems of foreign students, but O’Brien and his special envoy Brian Hayes, himself of Indian origin, have their work cut out before people are convinced that there are two Australias — one welcoming and warm and the other where you are lucky to get away with your life.
Student issues apart, ties between Australia and India have never really taken off. It is not really a major part of our foreign policy perception, neither is there the level of interest about that country that there is in, say, France or the US. Trade between India and Australia is iffy and, of course, there is the red rag of uranium sales. The Aussies may tell us that they apply the same yardstick for uranium sales to all countries. But then the Indians don’t feel that we should be bracketed with everyone else. South Australia sits on one of the largest uranium reserves in the world. O’Brien is almost apologetic about this across-the-board standard his country applies to those who have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. India feels, that given its growing stature in the world, it should be trusted as a responsible nuclear power and not be tied up in footling bureaucracy on proliferation.
The fault for India having such a negative perception about Australia lies with the latter, says O’Brien. He sees great economic opportunity in forging closer ties with India. And what better way than to woo students from here? The extent to which India has a blind spot about Australia is seen from the fact that the last prime ministerial visit to that country was when Rajiv Gandhi went calling in 1986.
It is a welcome sign that Australian leaders themselves are taking the initiative, as O’Brien has done, to dispel the myth that all Australians are allergic to Indians. Though Australia is still not the first port of call for most Indians when sending the children to study abroad, the economic downturn could make it an attractive destination given how much cheaper it is than the US and Britain. Language too is not a problem, as it would be in the European Union countries.
But one area, which is not so contentious and in which the two could work together, is renewable energy. The south Australians have been up and running with green technology on energy for quite a while and are looking to tie up with Indian partners like Suzlon. Hayes, himself a keen cricketer, predicts an upturn in ties in the near future. O’Brien’s best man at his wedding was from Kerala. The tea leaves seem to be falling into place for south Australia, but the question that remains is whether the Indians will be able to discern these fine distinctions at the moment.