Understanding India: Super power or not?


An overview of some of the key understandings of the AII conference India a Reluctant Super Power

Dr Devaki Monani

For the first time in contemporary Australia, India has been examined in an intellectual context by the Australia-India Institute. Here is an overview of some of the key understandings of the AII conference events held between 22 and 26 September.

The AII is a leading centre of intellectual dialogue and research partnerships, which since its inception in 2009 has been trying its best to contribute a greater understanding, co-operation and partnership between India and Australia.

Based in the University of Melbourne, the AII has received tremendous Victorian government financial support and national intellectual engagement. In terms of dollars, the institute as of 2009 received an impetus of 8 million dollars in staffing and research. Since 2008, the Institute collaborated with over 29 institutes in India. Particularly, with the elite institutes such as the IITs and IIMs with the relationship building being the key agenda of the institute.

Health, higher education, and business are some of the key areas of this policy of relationship building as described by AII chairman Robert Johanson, who in his inaugural speech also emphasised that ‘relationship building has been an interesting coincidence’ emerging from this process of engagement.

Student exchanges and annual orations will be a regular feature supported by the Institute. The other key feature described by AII director Professor Amitabh Matoo is that this is the only policy forum on India and Australia in Australia. Most important, trade investments, cultural education and teaching of Hindi will also be a key focus. AII is currently working with the University of Melbourne to bring the study of India into its curriculum; in a Masters of Arts course: India and the World and a Bachelor of Arts course: Introducing India.

Some of the key speakers at the conference were Hon Shashi Tharoor and Mani Shankar Aiyer, both members of the Indian Parliament, Isher Judge Ahluwalia, Chairperson, Board of Governors, the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), BJP head of media campaign Amitabh Sinha, Mr Navdeep Suri (Indian public diplomacy) and evening dinner key speaker, editor at The Age, Sushi Das (as a replacement to Karan Thappar as previously advertised). There are several others and these can be looked up on the official website details of which can be found at the end of this article.

The key narrative of all the speakers was ‘India’s stand as a reluctant super power’ and India’s aspirations in this context. One ghost of the past that emerged in almost every speech was Pandit Jawarhalal Nehru, as Mr Aiyer in his talk focused on the past of India’s non-aligned stance with the super power blocks (USSR & USA) in the 50s and the 60s. He reminded the audience that India was responsible for increasing the membership from the early 25 member non-aligned countries to 97 in seventh UN summit in 1983. He said that at the time India’s focus from the beginning was not to work in a framework of ‘Confrontation but Co-operation’ with the broader notion of’ Peace is indivisible’. Mr Aiyer’s talk did last much beyond the sessional allocated time with giving much importance to the relationship of India and the world from Jawaharlal Nehru to Manmohan Singh with interesting examples of India’s engagement with China, Iran USSR and the Palestine Question.

In her speech, Sushi Das brilliantly criticised the Australian government for its appalling dealings in the Indian student situation, much of this has been discussed and covered extensively by Indian media both in Australia and India. However one key message from her talk was the understanding that rogue colleges in Australia ‘hand fisted’ their way into and out of the system and we now operate in a strong environment for both countries of a period of ‘diplomatic chill’.

On the second day of the conference, the important key note speaker Isher Judge Ahulwalia presented a constructive view of the economic growth and percentages of growth particularly revisiting this thought that it’s not the Indian villages that need development but Indian cities are urgently in need of the infrastructural impetus that currently some parts of the Indian government are reluctant in pursuing.

Mr Navdeep Suri presented success stories of engaging with Indian expats in crisis in Libya and elsewhere to now have the opportunity of presenting their demands through Web 2.0 platforms such as twitter and facebook.

Finally our very own, very charming and bright eyed Shashi Tharoor and his third wife who made a stunning public appearance with a bollywood style sari caught the centre stage of the three-day events at Australia-India Institute. Mr Tharoor was at his charismatic best making much of the audience laugh through his stories around the Chicken Tikka Masala becoming the national dish of Britian to revisiting the notion of India’s advert as Incredible India with some credibility. To be honest, it felt like the Indians in the audience were so charmed by his style of talking that they overlooked the fact that the speech lacked the required depth of an intellectual oration to a superficial glistening of the India as a soft power in the globalising world.

The writer is a junior academic based at the University of Technology Sydney & Resident Academic St Johns College University of Sydney.