NaMo and ScoMo: Business as usual

By Dr David Brewster
Distinguished Research Fellow, Australia India Institute; National Security College, ANU

The re-election of the Modi government with an increased majority is good news for Australia.

It will help provide political stability for India and a mandate of sorts for Modi’s foreign policies.  This means the likely continuation of the favourable (if slow) evolution of the Australia-India relationship.

Since he was elected in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown little time for the ideological baggage that India long carried in international relations.  Jawaharlal Nehru may have died many decades ago, but his ideas of non-alignment and their modern equivalents still carry considerable moral weight with Indian policy makers.

Instead, Modi has sought to craft a foreign policy of India as a confident and emerging power prepared to pursue its national interests without the old ideological constraints. This includes developing security relationships with the United States and its allies, including Australia. Modi has been partially successful in leaving those constraints behind, but there is a long way to go.

Australia and India have been seriously engaging as strategic partners for around 15 years.  There has been a convergence in strategic interests and some progress in defence and security cooperation (if starting from a low base).   The recent AUSINDEX naval exercise held in April was a useful step towards more sophisticated interactions in the maritime space.   It involved a large Australian task force, matched by India, including submarines and maritime surveillance aircraft from both sides, practising anti-submarine warfare.

The economic relationship is less developed.  Trade, while still relatively thin, is starting to pick up.  Bilateral trade reached $29 billion in 2018.  This makes India Australia’s 4th largest export partner, after South Korea, but ahead of the United States.   But given the potential, there is still a long way to go.

Peter Varghese’ roadmap for Australia’s economic engagement with India is being implemented very slowly – although it has sparked interest on the Indian side.  India’s Ministry of External Affairs is in the process of preparing its own roadmap for economic engagement with Australia.  This is an unusual initiative in the Indian system.

Congress defeat

Modi’s win may indicate a long-term change in India’s approach to the world.   The electoral defeat of Congress, including the humiliating loss of Rahul Gandhi’s own seat, demonstrates that the country seems to have moved on from the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty which ruled India for decades.  By extension, the old dream of non-alignment (and its modern reincarnation, ‘strategic autonomy’) will carry far less moral weight than ever before.

A victory by the Congress Party, would probably have significantly slowed, and possibly even reversed, the trajectory of the Australia-India relationship.  Congress may have come a long way in recent years in modernising its perspectives on the world, but the ideology of nonalignment continues to be part of that party’s DNA.  This includes an instinctive desire to avoid security cooperation with other countries.

The obliteration of the Indian Communist/leftist heartland in West Bengal in this election also further weakens the voices of those that were opposed to Indian security cooperation with the United States and its allies.

Wuhan detente

But despite Modi’s modernising tendencies, the evolution of the Australia-India relationship has slowed somewhat over the last 6-12 months, with the government distracted by the upcoming election.

The relatively positive state of the India-China relationship may have also put a bit of a brake on further advances in defence and security cooperation with Australia.  The informal détente reached between Modi and Chinese President Xi at the Wuhan Summit in April 2018, has temporarily moderated strategic competition between India and China, which had previously been in a highly negative spiral.

When Modi attended the Wuhan Summit he was particularly fearful that there might be a renewed confrontation with China on their Himalayan border before the Indian election.  Unlike the Doklam confrontation in 2017, Modi could not be sure that India would come off the winner of any ‘Doklam 2.0’ standoff.

When Modi attended the Wuhan Summit he was particularly fearful that there might be a renewed confrontation with China on their Himalayan border before the Indian election.  Unlike the Doklam confrontation in 2017, Modi could not be sure that India would come off the winner of any ‘Doklam 2.0’ standoff.

The ‘Wuhan détente’ and distractions of the election have together put further developments of the Australia-India relationship on the backburner.  Fears of unnecessarily provoking China have led Modi to be more cautious in its engagement with the United States and its allies.

Post-election landscape

It may well be that the Wuhan détente melts away now that the election is over.   In theory, Modi would probably also like to see the détente continue as long as possible to allow the government to focus on domestic reforms.  But China may renew its assertiveness on the Himalayan border during this northern summer or otherwise take actions that threaten Indian interests elsewhere in South Asia (e.g. in Sri Lanka or Nepal).   The scale of Modi’s electoral victory may also give him a stronger hand domestically to counter China’s growing regional influence.   A renewal of Sino-Indian strategic competition would probably increase Australia’s attractiveness as a regional partner for India.

The re-election of the Coalition government led by Scott Morrison will also be a net positive for the relationship.   Despite the bipartisan approach among Australia’s major political parties towards India, there is a rusted on view among many in Delhi that the Australian Labor Party is not a friend of India and/or too warm towards Beijing.  There are long memories of Kevin Rudd’s mishandling of the Quad dialogue in 2007-08.   This does not reflect the current reality of Labor Party’s views.  But it still persists, as these things tend to do in Delhi.

To be sure, we should not expect that the return of the Modi government will signal a ‘golden age’ in Australia-India relations.   Many bureaucratic obstacles and constraints remain.  More importantly, there are a lot of strategic problems on India’s plate, including dealing with the slow but seemingly inexorable growth in Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean region, not to mention a recalcitrant Pakistan whose proxies recently murdered some 40 Indians.   Even as India moves past its old ideological constraints, Australia remains a fair way down the list of India’s concerns.

Image: Narendra Modi. Image credit: Flickr/Modi


election; policy Election; Policy australia; india Australia; India

Election Watch: Past Editions