The news that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will address the Australian Parliament next month is a welcome sign of how far relations between Australia and India have advanced. As the Australia-India Roundtable concluded earlier this year, and as Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott recently declared, ties between these two democracies have reached a new maturity.
It is fitting in every way that Mr Modi should speak to the Australian Parliament. He is, after all, the politician with the biggest democratic mandate in the world, given the scale of his victory in this year's Indian election. His worthwhile agenda to improve Indian governance, economic performance, science, education, development and strategic influence is in step with what Australia wants to offer India as a partner – as Indian public opinion broadly recognises, according to this poll. Hu Jintao, Shinzo Abe, and Indonesia's SBY, not to mention Barack Obama and George W Bush, have all had their moment to speak directly to Australia's elected representatives. In addition to China, Japan, Indonesia and the US, India is Australia's key Indo-Pacific partner.
And it would do no harm if Modi gave his address in Hindi. He is a brilliant orator in that language, and it would be a nice reminder to Australians that this is one of the fastest-growing languages in this country – and that the English language has no monopoly on democracy.
For all that, there is one aspect of Greg Sheridan's story breaking the news of Modi's parliamentary address that warrants correcting. The story emphasises the role of differences over nuclear issues in explaining why it has taken an outrageous 28 years for an Indian Prime Minister to get around to visiting Australia.
In recent years, Australia's now-abandoned reluctance to consider uranium exports to India may well have slowed down relations – and does help explain Manmohan Singh's failure to show up at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth in 2011. But it is bending history to suggest that that Australia's condemnation of India's 1998 nuclear weapons tests was the reason Singh's predecessor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, pulled out of a 2002 visit for an earlier CHOGM, at Coolum in Queensland.
As a diplomat in Delhi at the time, I well recall the effort on both sides that went into planning that visit, and the frustration when it was called off. There was just one reason for its 11th-hour cancellation – the violent riots in Gujarat, a state then led by Mr Modi as chief minister, and the need for Vajpayee to manage the domestic political controversy that followed.
There is a curious circularity, then, to the fact that Mr Modi will now take the journey that Vajpayee never made. But it is still very good that he is making it.
Photo by Flickr user Tony Abbott.