Alys Francis talks to Fairfax’s South Asia correspondent about the India he calls “unpredictable and defiant, contrary and fascinating”
Ben Doherty first moved to New Delhi on Republic Day, January 26, 2011 as Fairfax’s South Asia correspondent, writing for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
Since then he’s travelled from the soaring Himalayas in the north to the sleepy backwaters of Kerala down south and almost everywhere in between, chasing stories about terrorist attacks, droughts, child labour, human rights abuses and more.
In the process he’s picked up Hindi, a mean looking Royal Enfield motorbike and just recently, a bout of Dengue fever (a somewhat less desirable memento).
Alys Francis caught up with him at his office in South Delhi to find out his impression of India and, as election campaigning gears up and the economy sputters, where he thinks the country is heading.
What was your impression of India when you first arrived?
I’d always had an interest in India and I read quite widely before I came and I thought maybe I understood a little bit about India. And that was probably disproved in a single day when India was, as it want to be, unpredictable and defiant and contrary and fascinating.
I see modern India as this emerging, dynamic democracy that will be one of the world’s super powers in a generation – this is a country standing on threshold of greatness and it’s a fascinating time to be here.
What stories are you most proud of having written?
I’ve been really interested in stories about India’s place in the world and about the issues it faces in development and I supposed the interactions and the growing connectedness between India and the outside world.
I wrote a story about Sherrin (an Australian brand) footballs being stitched by children – I’m very interested in child labour stories.
It demonstrated I suppose that while there are great benefits to globalisation and increased trade and these sorts of things between countries that there is the risk of exploitation and these are serious issues for a developing country.
I think that those sorts of stories, while they might not be particularly pleasant stories to work on, or to write, I think are important for a country like India and also a developed country like Australia to understand the nature of these relationships an how they need to b very careful in monitoring them.
India is often touted as a contender for the world’s next superpower but lately, with the economy slowing, doubts have been raised. What’s your opinion?
Certainly India has its issues and they’re well known and perhaps its issues are amplified by the fact that it is such a vast country. I think the issues around food security, I think the education of women and the treatment of women generally is just a hugely important issue in this country.
I think sometimes the West gets disappointed with India when it doesn’t develop in the way it thinks it should. At the moment the economy is struggling and these things and there’s issues around corruption and this sort of thing. It feel likes the west can sometimes be hypercritical of India.
But India will work out its issues in India’s way, it might take a little longer it might be a different way than the outside world expects but I see progress all around within India. In my neighbourhood I see a small immigrant family who’s come in from Orissa who live in a little shack that they built at the end of my street and I see them building a business. The father has become a blacksmith now and has his stall set up and he has a small shop and I see the children now in school uniforms going to school and I just see development on every level.
I see this restless urge in India to improve and develop and I think India will develop in India’s way but India will develop into a world superpower economically and politically.
What do you think about Australia’s efforts to build stronger ties with India?
I think that the Australia India relationship historically hasn’t been well managed from both sides. And ostensibly you look at these two countries you think that these are countries that would have a good relationship. Everyone talks about the three Cs, commonwealth, cricket and a common language. But they I suppose haven’t been enough to for the two countries to understand each other and I still think, particularly from the Australian side, India’s not well understood and again the diversity of India and India’s unique way of operating isn’t well understood.
The two countries really haven’t seen eye-to-eye over quite a few issues I think the fact that the nuclear issue is kind of the irritant, that a lot of people underestimated just how much that was perceived as a slight by the Indians.
It feels to me, after speaking to diplomats on both sides, that there’s clear air in the relationship now and the two countries can communicate on a much more frank level. I think certainly the relationship would benefit from an Indian prime minister visiting Australia. Australian prime ministers seem to be coming here a lot but there doesn’t seem the same desire to go back. I understand that from India’s point of view Australia hasn’t been as important a relationship as perhaps the US or the UK or China, these great powers, especially when looking after what is a difficult neighbourhood. But I think Australia is growing in importance as a partner for India, particularly in areas around energy.
So I think the relationship hasn’t been well managed but it seems to be on the right footing now and there is certainly scope and the opportunity to improve on that.
Who do you think will win next year’s election?
I think that what will happen, and this is probably not the best result for India, is that neither congress nor the BJP will win a convincing mandate and they will be forced to make a coalition.
The BJP obviously think (Narendra) Modi will win them more votes and they’re probably right. Certainly amongst BJP supporters Modi’s very popular. But it will make it harder for the BJP to build a coalition because he is not well liked by regional parties and certain regional voters and that will make it more difficult for the BJP to build a coalition.
Congress, particularly in its second term, corruption has just been such a huge issue in this government and people I think are very jaded by government at the moment. Congress, if it is to win enough seats, it will again have to build a coalition and that makes governing difficult in a lot of ways.
Without a strong, clear, unadulterated mandate, government is forced into negotiation and forced into compromise all the time, which can often be good in terms of building consensus but it can often restrict governments getting done what needs to get done. The current government has really struggled to get through its mandate, things like FDI (foreign direct investment) have been difficult, the food security bill has been difficult, introduction of a GST, changes to insurance legislation, all of these reforms that India’s crying out for at the moment, they haven’t been able to do because they haven’t been able to govern effectively.
For the last few years, talking to Indian citizens, they feel that they haven’t been well served by the government. I think India needs a strong government, whichever side wins, which is able to govern effectively, which is able to reduce corruption, to improve efficiency and to certainly grab a hold of the Indian economy and to start steering it back towards this growth that we saw in the last decade.
What are your plans upon leaving India?
I’ll be sad to leave India whenever it is that I eventually leave. I’ve fallen in love with this place. I have days where I find India frustrating, but most days I think it’s the most enchanting, intoxicating, fascinating place I’ve ever been. I have no idea what ill do next, I would like to stay in journalism but I don’t know that I’ll ever quite find a job like this.