Anthony Albanese has a terrific anecdote to tell about the time he was a prominent member of parliament and traveled to India. While there, he caused a commotion among the Australian diplomats who were stationed there, as the tale goes.
In the face of a carefully orchestrated schedule full of meetings and handshakes, Albanese managed to throw off the officials.
According to the Prime Minister’s version of events, he “horrified the people from the high commission by going to see Akshardham, which is a Hindu temple.”
The year was 2018, and Albanese was in New Delhi when he decided to head to the outskirts of the capital city all by himself by hopping on a local metro train. He had visited the city over thirty years earlier, in 1991, when he was a traveller on a vacation of five weeks’ duration.
“But New Delhi has changed,” Albanese adds, and one component of that transformation is the brand new enormous vast temple complex. In the year 1991, there wasn’t all that much there… After that, I decided to use the metro for the first time ever by myself because I had never taken the metro before. And they [the diplomats] said things like, ‘You can’t do that.’ And I followed it up by going for the walk. In addition to that, the atmosphere is wonderful and welcoming. The Indian people are known for their incredible warmth and hospitality.
In the following weeks, as Albanese gets ready to travel to New Delhi for the G20 summit on September 9-10, he will most likely share more experiences with a happy ending that are similar to those he has already shared. He wants to convey the idea that friendship and new chances are always available. In point of fact, New Delhi did not even have a metro until only a few years ago, making the successful completion of its construction on time and within budget a remarkable achievement. Therefore, the Prime Minister relates this anecdote in order to emphasize all of the aspirations that his administration has for India with regard to Australia’s foreign policy.
A personal connection checks all of the boxes.
An economy that is both expanding and becoming more modern — check!
And the inhabitants have a spirit of generosity and an appreciation for new experiences; check and check.
However, that is only one aspect of the whole story.
Because events that occurred with the country’s most prominent opposition leader last week highlighted the fact that India also possesses some traits that are unsettling. The rhetorical values that Australia wants to embrace as the “world’s biggest democracy” are not always neatly aligned with the local politics that occur in the country.
It was necessary for Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the Congress party, to rely on the highest court in the land in order to have a bogus conviction and a two-year jail sentence suspended and to be granted permission to resume his seat in parliament. The fact that he was charged with defamation in the first place after making sarcastic but inoffensive comments about his competitors only serves to solidify the perception that the government of Narendra Modi is intolerable of dissent.
Whether that be in battles with human rights organizations, 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 cheerfully buying up the Kremlin’s cheap, sanction-hit oil and complaining about the unfairness of scrutiny.
The challenge that Australia faces with India is one of asymmetrical power, and no amount of friendly storytelling will be enough to overcome it. However, this is also an experience that Australia has had in the past, in the form of previous relations with a close neighbor named Indonesia. Even though the analogies are not entirely accurate, there are still valuable lessons to be learned.
During the reign of Suharto, Australia’s enthusiasm for closer ties with Indonesia manifested itself in a foreign policy that routinely ignored concerns about authoritarian politics. This policy lasted for the entirety of Suharto’s time in power. Successive governments were effusive in their praise of the opportunities that could be found in Indonesia, and in particular, of Suharto’s leadership. 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 fickleness.
This 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.