Asialink Council Chairman Peter Varghese AO reflects on 75 years of India's independence, achievements and challenges, and what the future holds for its relationship with Australia.
This year India celebrates 75 years of post colonial independence.
At 75 most people are reflecting on the past: weighing their achievements and perhaps wondering what might have been. For India at 75 however the larger questions are about its future.
India defies categorical judgements. Whenever you think you are close to understanding it, some contradictory evidence will emerge. Qualifications and caveats intrude on the elegance of uncluttered conclusions.
India’s future matters to Australia. Ours is a relationship which has been variously overlooked, sometimes over sold, often underdone but always shaped by an expectation of better things to come.
Australian PM Scott Morrison meets with Indian PM Narendra Modi for the Second India-Australia Virtual Summit - March 21, 2022. Image credit: Indian Ministry of External Affairs, @MEAIndia, Twitter.
India’s greatest achievement of the last 75 years has been to build a secular liberal democracy. At its midnight hour birth, many wondered how a nation of such extraordinary diversity could remain united. India could have been forgiven for insisting then that it could not afford the indulgence of democracy. Instead it crafted a constitution anchored in the principle of the sovereignty of the people.
India at 75 faces three big challenges. First, can it find the political will to articulate and pursue the larger market based economic reforms which can enable it to take full advantage of its assets.
Second, will it be able to insulate its policy on strategic autonomy from the pressures to side more closely with one side of an emerging strategic equilibrium centred on balancing and constraining China and Russia?
Third, will the secular liberal democratic character of India hold?
The Indian economy
The economy will be the single most important determinant of India’s future. Without economic heft, India will not have strategic reach.
India does not need any tuition on economic reform and certainly not from outsiders. The reform agenda has been part of the Indian economic debate for decades and includes reform of the banking system, access to land, labour market rigidities, a skills deficit, deregulation, privatisation and state capacity.
Historically, India’s political culture has favoured those who advocate state intervention and state subsidies. Elections are rarely won on a platform of market reforms. Good market driven economic policy in India is generally not good politics.
India has however shown in the past that when it must it can deliver on economic reforms. In the last four decades India’s per capita income has quadrupled and over 200 million people have been lifted out of absolute poverty, largely as a result of changes to economic policy.
The lesson of India’s economic history is that the more it opens up its economy, internally and externally, the stronger its economic performance.
India as a geopolitical partner
The currents of geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific are moving India closer to the US and its allies such as Australia and Japan. But they are very unlikely to move so far as to cause India to review its embrace of strategic autonomy.
India’s close relationship with Russia complicates its position. The US-India relationship has many facets but its strategic driver is a shared interest in balancing China so that China does not become the hegemon of the region. This logic is compelling but how will India resolve the tension inherent in working with the US to constrain China while China now works with Russia to constrain the US?
Walking a fine line on Russia and Ukraine has highlighted this tension. India’s friends understand the history of its relationship with Russia which is India’s largest arms supplier. But if respect for sovereignty and the principle of non interference are foundational principles of Indian foreign policy there was an expectation that their blatant violation would be explicitly called out.
Those who want India to give up on strategic autonomy and pick a side will likely be disappointed. But India must itself realise that strategic autonomy is not the same as keeping all your options open all the time. If strategic autonomy is to mean anything it must mean the autonomy to make hard strategic choices.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, and Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishanka hold Quad ministerial press conference, Melbourne, Australia - February 11, 2022. Image credit: US Department of State, Flickr.
These tensions in India’s position will only get more complicated as the China-Russia relationship evolves into a joint effort to balance the United States. India’s close defence relationship with Russia now effectively means that the strategic partner of its adversary is both India’s arms supplier and the adversary of arguably India’s most important strategic partner, the US.
The point here is not that there is a risk of India parting ways with the Quad or walking back from its expanding strategic relationships with the US, Japan and Australia. Rather it is that the tension inherent in India both opposing China and embracing Russia will have consequences for its other relationships. It means that the pace at which the Quad can move will be both slowed and determined by India’s position. That does not make the Quad useless but it does mean our expectations of it need to be realistic.
India as a secular liberal democracy
The secular liberal democratic character of India is a key part of its attraction to Australia as a comprehensive strategic partner. Indeed without it our partnership would be tepid.
If this common ground of shared values were for whatever reason to weaken we would have lost the foundation stone of our strategic partnership and no amount of realpolitik will be able to replace it. That is why the hard earned secular liberal democratic character of India is so important to the way in which we think about the Australia-India relationship.
I do not share the view that India has already become an illiberal democracy. But there are indeed signs that minorities fear for their freedoms, that incitements to communal violence are met with silence, that charges of sedition are misused to advance a communal agenda and that key institutions tasked with independence may be too accommodating of the wishes of government.
These signs should not be lightly dismissed. They are not the figments of imagination of India’s enemies or the government’s political opponents. Many of India’s friends are also troubled by them.
But when it comes to democracy in India I tend to the view which is often ascribed to the US, namely, there is nothing wrong with Indian democracy which cannot be fixed by what is right with Indian democracy. True democracies are ultimately self correcting and I have long had the view that India is a true democracy.
When I finished my posting to India at the end of 2012, the strongest impression I had was the palpable sense of aspiration which infused its people. That remains the case today.
Aspiration is a powerful force. If thwarted it can move in unpredictable, even dangerous directions. If fulfilled, even in modest measure, it can unleash enormous energy and achievement.
This is the challenge before India’s leaders. Observers of India are often short term pessimists but there is something of the tortoise in today’s India which makes me a long term optimist. Not for India the sprint of the hare but instead the steady incremental progress of the tortoise.
And a key feature of incremental progress is the resilience it brings in its wake. Sprints peter out. Resilience comes from the hard yards of economic reform; from bringing people with you; acknowledging the incomparable value of social cohesion; recognising that diversity is a strength and taking into India’s next 75 years that secular liberal and democratic character that was the singular achievement of India’s first 75 years.
Peter Varghese AO is Chancellor of The University of Queensland (UQ), chair of the Asialink Council, and former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Banner image: Indian PM Narendra Modi delivers Independence Day address, Delhi, India - August 15, 2018. Credit: PradeepGaurs, Shutterstock.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Australian on March 22, 2022.
This is an edited extract from a lecture on March 16, 2022 to the Centre for Policy Research in India to mark the 75th anniversary of Indian independence.