13 November 2014
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Australians have waited a while for an Indian prime minister's visit. The last was by Rajiv Gandhi in 1986. Now the diplomatic drought is ending. On November 15-16, Narendra Modi will join world leaders at the G20 summit in Brisbane. Then he will embark on a whirlwind tour of Sydney and Melbourne, pausing to address the Australian Parliament in Canberra-a first for an Indian leader.
This is not just about completing a long overdue journey towards closer relations between two Indian Ocean democracies. The fact is, India and Australia are rapidly becoming more important to one another. As Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott reflected when he visited Delhi in September, the relationship is reaching a new maturity. This is driven by overlapping connections of economics, strategy and people. Australian resources, including coal, gold, copper and, potentially soon, uranium and natural gas, are becoming a major part of India's development. The two are exploring ways in which their armed forces can work together in a shared Indo-Pacific region.
People of Indian origin, now one of Australia's fastest-growing migrant communities, number more than 450,000 in this country of 23 million. According to an opinion poll published by the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, Indians have generally moved beyond the concerns regarding student safety and the welcome they might receive Down Under. Instead, 75 per cent see Australia as a good place to be educated in, second only after the United States. There is a newfound respect for this multicultural democracy, with 60 per cent of Indians polled saying it would be good if India functioned more like Australia.
Without question, the relationship has had its downs. During the Cold War, Australia, as a steadfast US ally, looked askance at Indian non-alignment-and no doubt many Indians saw Australia as a relic of colonialism. Australian criticism of the 1998 nuclear tests and a long-standing ban on uranium sales to India due to its non-membership of the Non- Proliferation Treaty served to heighten a lack of trust.
But those days are long past. Both major parties in Australian politics now see India as a responsible nuclear power and support uranium sales to India for civilian purposes. India has become Australia's fourth or fifth largest export market in any given year. Concern about China's rise and a shared interest in fighting regional disorder-including terrorism-has helped reduce the distance between Canberra and Delhi.
The Modi visit will be a reminder of how much leadership matters. Both countries are now led by unusually decisive and dynamic individuals, determined to make a mark on foreign affairs and economic development. The Abbott government seems to recognise in Modi's India a new source of strategic partnership in a risk-fraught Asian security environment. Strikingly, both see the same in Japan.
So what can one expect from Modi's journey Down Under? It is not his first visit. As a diplomat, I helped arrange his first foray in 2001 on a programme sponsored by an Australian government interested in expanding the horizons of this rising star of Indian politics.
Like Abbott, Modi is well aware of the need to coordinate economics, strategy and foreign policy. But many of the most important accomplishments in a 21st century bilateral relationship are not solely the preserve of governments: investment, trade and migration will work best when politics gets out of the way. The Modi visit will be less about launching a partnership than consolidating one.
And in this, the special ingredient will be not power or wealth, but people. The signature moment is unlikely to be the Canberra speech or announcements of new mining investments or defence exercises. Instead, it will be when Modi addresses a community-organised gathering of more than 15,000 Indian-Australians at the Sydney Olympic stadium-a moment to match, or perhaps surpass, the Madison Square Garden experience. I suspect that no foreign leader, not even an American president, has had quite such a welcome. India- Australia relations will never be the same again.
Rory Medcalf is a programme director at the Lowy Institute and founding chair of the Australia-India Roundtable. He served as an Australian diplomat in New Delhi from 2000 to 2003.