Albanese's storytelling on the Australia-India relationship is not quite the whole tale

Albanese's storytelling on the Australia-India relationship is not quite the whole tale

Originally published in The Guardian


Anthony Albanese tells a great little story about going to India as a leading member of parliament a few years ago and how he sent the local Australian diplomats into a minor frenzy.

Facing a meticulously planned program of meetings and handshakes, Albanese gave officials the slip.

“I horrified the people from the high commission by going to see Akshardham, a Hindu temple,” as the prime minister tells it.

It was 2018, in New Delhi, and Albanese jumped on a local metro train by himself and headed to the outskirts of the capital. He’d been to the city nearly 30 years beforehand, in 1991, as a backpacker on a five-week sojourn.

“But New Delhi has changed,” Albanese explains, with the new giant sprawling temple complex part of that expansion. “In 91, there wasn’t that much there … So, I got on the metro because I hadn’t been on the metro, and I went by myself. And they [the diplomats] were like, ‘You can’t do that.’ And I did, and then did the walk. And it’s such a friendly, amazing place. And the hospitality of the Indian people is just great.”

Anthony Albanese and Narendra Modi shakes hands with the Sydney opera house in the background across the water

Narendra Modi says Albanese pledged ‘strict actions’ against any attacks on Hindu temples in Australia

Albanese will likely roll out similarly happy anecdotes again in the coming weeks as he prepares to travel to New Delhi for the G20 summit on 9-10 September. The message he wants to send is one of opportunities and friendship. Indeed, New Delhi didn’t even have a metro until a few years back, the construction on-time and on-budget seen as a remarkable achievement. So the PM tells this story to emphasise all the elements of ambition that his government has for India in Australia’s foreign policy.

A personal connection – tick.

A growing and modernising economy – tick.

And a people with a fondness for adventure and a kindness of spirit – tick, tick.

Except that is only half the story.

Because India, as events with the country’s main opposition leader last week underscored, also has some discomforting traits. Local politics is not always neatly aligned to the rhetorical values Australia wants to embrace with the “world’s biggest democracy”.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was forced to rely on the country’s supreme court to have a spurious conviction and two-year jail sentence suspended and be allowed to resume his seat in parliament. That he was charged with defamation in the first place after making tart but innocuous comments about his rivals only cements a view that Narendra Modi’s government is intolerant of dissent.

Whether that’s in battles with human rights organisations, crackdowns on social media, internet blackouts in Kashmir, increasing harassment of Muslims, a tardy response to religious violence in the country’s north-east, or in not joining its Quad partners in a forthright condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – all the while happily buying up the Kremlin’s cheap, sanction-hit oil and complaining about the unfairness of scrutiny.

Australia faces an asymmetrical challenge with India that no amount of warm storytelling can quite overcome. But it’s also an experience Australia has had before, in past relations with a near neighbour: Indonesia. There are lessons to draw – even if the parallels are not perfect.

Anthony Albanese and Narendra Modi wave as they leave the crowded stadium

Narendra Modi receives rock-star reception in Sydney as Anthony Albanese hails ‘rich friendship’

During the Suharto era, Australia’s enthusiasm for closer ties with Indonesia manifested in a foreign policy that consistently brushed aside concerns about authoritarian politics. Successive governments raved about the prospects on offer with Indonesia, and about Suharto’s leadership especially. They became increasingly tetchy with critics of this approach. Quiet diplomacy was judged the better path to raising any concerns.

Only this introduced a fragility to the relationship, a constant mismatch between the attitudes of officialdom and popular sentiment at home. Thorny questions such as the occupation of Timor-Leste or Suharto family corruption would rise to the surface, and the Australian public would demand its government respond. When the political pressure grew too great, and Australia did speak out or act, the Indonesian side would wonder at Australia’s perceived ficklenessThis gave the Australia-Indonesia relationship a tear-and-repair quality, meaning it never quite lived up to expectations because the public didn’t judge it as authentic – and didn’t believe the dismissive voices who blamed everyday Australians themselves for ignorance or a lack of cultural understanding. When Suharto eventually fell, as all autocrats do, the government’s approach was revealed for its bankruptcy.

India under Modi is clearly not Indonesia during the Suharto years. Modi may have an approval rating near 80% but elections next year will be a weeks’ long carnival. The local media carries on with an admirable raucousness. And India has an assertive China on its doorstep.

But where Australia should draw a lesson is in the importance of not glossing over differences. When, for example, Modi chose to host a G20 preparatory meeting on tourism in strife-torn Kashmir, as happened in May, he’s stretching the boundaries of good diplomacy. Australia needn’t play along.

Exaggerating claims of national friendship, or indulging in flattery for “the boss”, won’t persuade those who can plainly see the obstacles. And this is not just about Indians offside with Modi’s vision, but also public backing at home for Australian foreign policy.

Interests guide the relationship much more than flowery pleading about common connections or assertions of democratic fraternity. Former PM Tony Abbott would have it that “the answer to almost every question about China is India” but it’s nothing so simple. Realistic expectations will be a firmer foundation for ambition than ignoring the obvious differences.

India, after all, has no compunction putting its view to Australia. Indian officials last year anonymously leaked to the Australian media to warn the government about local Sikh activists. Modi put this complaint directly and publicly to Albanese himself, while Albanese stayed stumm.

An argument goes that it’s not the PM’s job to upset his counterpart. But this convenient dodge ignores that it is Albanese’s role to reflect the Australian people, and a willingness to call out bullshit is a magnificent Australian trait.

Areas of expertise: Australian foreign policy and politics; Australia’s intelligence services; international relations in Asia