Last night Indian PM Narendra Modi was feted like a rock star in front of more than 16,500 cheering Australian-Indians at Sydney’s Allphones Arena.
The combination of culture and old-school political rally has been dubbed “polliewood” in a play on India’s famous film industry.
Today Modi addressed the Australian parliament outlining much closer links to Australia and paying credit to Australian PM Tony Abbott for kicking off this new bromance when he visited India in September.
Already there’s talk of a free-trade agreement between Australia and India, with Tony Abbott wanting a deal struck within a year.
Modi’s arrival in Australia, the first visit by an Indian PM in nearly three decades, heralds a remarkable turning point in relations between the two nations.
Just five years ago, they were at a low ebb in the wake of repeated attacks on Indian students in Melbourne that led to street demonstrations both here and in India, a Bollywood boycott on shooting films in Australia, a row of racism, and inflammatory media, from the Indian weekly Outlook’s cover story “Why the Aussies Hate Us”, to a Mother Jones essay on how Indian call centre workers are trained to believe Aussies are dumb, drunken racists.
Equally dramatic was Modi’s election in May as the leader of 1.25 billion people. The 64-year-old BJP leader and MP for Varanasi is a reformer, keen to drag his nation out of the bureaucratic torpor that’s plagued its development. Most importantly, he’s tackled the endemic corruption that hampers progress.
It’s equally a comeback for Modi, who was chief minister in Gujarat 12 years ago when religious tensions led to a three-day pogrom that killed 1000, predominantly minority Muslims. It followed the death of 59 Hindu pilgrims in a deliberately lit train fire. The wholesale destruction and murders captured global attention. Modi stood accused of inaction as the riots spread and for many years subsequently, both the US and UK took a dim view, refusing him diplomatic visas. While the media-savvy PM was surrounded by adoring fans last night, 100 Sikhs stood outside protesting against the Modi government’s treatment of non-Hindu minorities.
Meanwhile, the BJP holds the first outright majority in the lower house, the Lok Sabha, in 30 years and Modi is determined it won’t go to waste. He appointed several women to senior cabinet positions (please note Tony Abbott) such as external affairs, and commerce and industry and charged them with implementing change. Human resources development minister Smriti Irani is 38 and already restructuring the education curriculum for a greater focus on vocational skills, and is plowing more money into research, science and technology. She’s made it know she wants a Harvard campus in India.
Her fellow ministers have already set a cracking pace.
India under Modi is feeling enthused and invigorated and now the PM has turning his sights on international goals. As his Australian visit demonstrates, he has the charm and wit to be noticed on the global stage and as the boss of a potential market of 1.25 billion people – not to mention being a nuclear power – he’ll very quickly gain the world’s attention.
Australia is well-placed to take advantage of that. One example is the education sector, as the chart below shows.
When things when awry in 2009, Indian students were 65,000 of the 320,000 foreign students studying here – around one in five. Within two years, that number halved and Chinese students became the dominant market subsequently.
In 2013, Australian trade with India was worth $9.5 billion, including $1.3 billion in education-related travel. Coal is nearly half total exports at $4.7bn. Services exports are worth $1.9 billion.
India ranks 4th behind the UK, NZ and China in terms of migrants to Australia, with nearly 300,000 people, plus an additional 390,000 Australians identify as of Indian heritage.
As evidenced by their cheering and chanting for Modi at his stadium appearance last night – a welcome Katy Perry, who plays there next week, can only envy – Indian-Australians will be powerful and vocal advocates for the relationship between the two nations. The message that Australia is India’s friend also went directly to the subcontinent, with eight Indian TV stations covering Modi’s address, which he gave in Hindi. It included details that should pique the interest of Australia companies, with Modi outlining that the lifeblood of Indian transport, the railway system, will be opened to foreign investment.
Addressing Parliament today, Modi said “I see Australia as a major partner in every area of our national priority“.
Modi reminded Canberra of the deep connection it has with India – the national capital’s designer, Walter Burley Griffin, is buried in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh.
He went on:
Australia will not be at the periphery of our vision, but at the centre of our thought. So, we stand together at a moment of enormous opportunity and great responsibility.
Narendra Modi wasn’t just talking about cricket.
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