Australia is being pushed into a closer relationship with India, but to succeed at this we need a real understanding of Narendra Modi, the man recently elected Prime Minister to 1.2 billion Indians.
There is talk of Australia playing a role in a “democratic coalition” in response to growing concerns about China – along with Japan, USA and India. At the same time, former US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, issued an unusually blunt warning to Australia against putting “all our eggs in the one basket” of China.
But while we are close to both Japan and the USA, what do we really know about India and the region’s new “action man”, Prime Minister Modi?
For all his reputation as a modern business-oriented politician, Modi is really a case of “something old, something new”. He begins each day at around 5am with yoga practice, following an ancient “pranayama” breathing technique, and then jumps on to the internet for global information. He studies ancient texts and loves multi-media, high technology presentations.
Adhering to ancient concepts of “service”, Modi never took a holiday in the 13 years since 2001 when he was elected Chief Minister of Gujarat and kept his personal staff to as low as three, despite entitlement to a large entourage – and by providing consistent electricity 24/7 he gained the reputation for action in a country where power disruptions are a daily experience.
Because of this, some of New Delhi’s elite position Modi as a democratic dictator, largely because he is one of the few Indian leaders who can make quick decisions. In addition, in Gujarat and now in New Delhi he has shown the ability to reach beyond the established elites – for example, much of the investment in Gujarat resulted from his direct relationships in China and Japan.
As a result of riots and a tragic loss of life in Gujarat at the start of his era as Chief Minister, Modi is often portrayed as “anti-Muslim”. Additionally, westerners are confused by this claim as they assume someone who is a Hindu nationalist must be anti-Muslim. This old “for me to be right, you must be wrong” view is no way to try an understand India – and our diplomacy should accept the many paradoxes of India.
Not widely known is that in his time in Gujarat, Modi regularly turned to the old negotiating technique of holding several personal fasts as his own “Sadbhavna Mission” (Goodwill Mission) reaching out to the Muslim community.
Modi’s major inspiration is Swami Vivekananda, a Hindu who spoke at the first Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1893 and won the audience with his plea for tolerance and mutual respect among religions – Vivekananda concluded that every religion “has produced men and women of the most exalted character”. This shapes much of Modi’s thinking.
Foreign policy experts have said Modi will be far too muscular and aggressive in his attitude to the region. Yet his early treatment of two immediate neighbours contradicts this view – he issued a high profile invitation to Pakistan to be present at his swearing in ceremony and has announced Indian money to build a cultural centre in Sri Lanka, recovering from civil war. These two subtle moves are important indications of a thoughtful approach to India’s neighbourhood.
The Harvard academic Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power” as the ability to use influence rather than raw power – Australia will need to match Modi’s skills in this area and give priority to building personal relationships across his regime.
Australia’s overt dependence on the USA has never been viewed well in Asia and is unlikely to find friends in the new Modi government – even as we are pushed closer together.
Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott should put energy into “soft power” to change our reputation in Delhi – even to be noticed there. For example, the Australian World Orchestra is planning a series of concerts in India in 2015 – for many Indians, this side of Australia will be a surprise and Abbott would do well to be there and invite Modi as his special guest.
It is also why the Abbott government’s “Reverse Colombo Plan” of sending our brightest and best students into Asia is a great step forward, which needs to be fast-tracked.
At an academc and think tank level, we made a good “soft power” start with creating the Australia India Institute – which has achieved beyond its budgets – and with more funds from Canberra could play a significant role in this cultural diplomacy.
Our PM would do well to study Modi’s inspiration, Swami Vivekananda, who said: “The whole secret of existence is to have no fear. Never fear what will become of you, depend on no one. Only the moment you reject all help are you freed.” As the USA, Japan and Australia prepare to woo India for a four nation “coalition”, this statement makes it clear that India’s “action man” Narendra Modi is not someone to take for granted.
Stephen Manallack is a published author and cross-cultural trainer. He has led many trade missions to India and is a regular speaker and trainer there. His new book is Soft Skills for a Flat World (Tata McGraw-Hill). He is Founder of the EastWest Academy.
Published in The Indian Sun (Indian Newspaper in Melbourne)