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WINDOW TO AUSTRALIA

- Has cricket shaped India’s perception of its neighbours?

It has been a great fortnight for xenophobes and the champions of “Fortress India”. First there was the much-discussed Time magazine dubbing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh an “underachiever”, a description that produced bouts of hysterical over-reaction from the Congress. Then there was the bitter complaint by the prime minister of Singapore over the uncertain business environment in India — an observation that was greeted with embarrassed silence since the small city-state can hardly be accused of nurturing a sinister political agenda. And finally, there was President Barack Obama’s interview to the Press Trust of India over the obstacles in the path of foreign direct investment in India. Although what Obama said was nothing that hadn’t been said inside the country by Indians, it led to a bipartisan assertion of Indian sovereignty. “We will do what suits us” was the refrain of a political class that falls back on flag-waving when expedient.

Amid this mood of prickliness that has engulfed a part of Lutyens’ Delhi ever since ratings agencies such as Standard and Poor’s began expressing doubts over the efficacy of the India story, it is heartening that there is some good news for the beleaguered nationalists. Ironically, it has come from a part of the world that does not figure very high in the Indian perception of the world. In its report, Beyond the Lost Decade, released earlier this week, a taskforce of the Australia India Institute of the University of Melbourne has spelt out concrete steps that both New Delhi and Canberra can take to make the bilateral relationship more meaningful.

The specific recommendations set out in this extremely lucid and erudite report — reading it was a pleasure — on issues such as business, immigration and the inner workings of the under-staffed ministry of external affairs — will, hopefully, receive the necessary attention in both countries. However, what fascinated me were some of the intriguing observations made by the report (a joint effort of three Indians and three Australians) on the role of cricket in shaping perceptions of Australia in India.

It would hardly be an exaggeration to suggest that if Australia figures in India’s popular imagination, it is due to cricket. For most Indians, Australia is the land of Donald Bradman, Richie Benaud, Steve Waugh, Shane Warne and even the much misunderstood Greg Chappell. Melbourne figures in the consciousness of Indian decision-makers not because of some brawls involving dodgy students but because of the Boxing Day test at the legendary Melbourne Cricket Ground. For Australians, too, and more so after the centre of the cricket economy shifted from London to Mumbai in the mid-1990s, the few times India figures on the radar are because of cricket.

In a revealing analysis of the Sydney Morning Herald between September 2010 and August 2011, the report discovered that out of the 405 published stories on an India-related theme, 170 were on cricket — followed by (quite reassuringly) 100 stories on business. There were also 36 news items on geopolitics and only nine on Indian politics. This is hardly surprising. A poll in parts of the erstwhile Soviet Union would have revealed that India is invariably equated with Raj Kapoor. Such are the vagaries of what is now glorified as “soft power”.

The Australia India Institute has recognized the importance of cricket in conferring on Australia “a name recognition that is astonishing in a country and a subcontinent most of whose 1.2 billion people are remarkably self-absorbed, with only a fleeting interest in the rest of the planet.… (That its) top cricketers were Australia’s most identifiable faces in India was acknowledged as an opportunity in this narrow context.” At the same time, the report argues that the disproportionate importance attached to cricket has reinforced stereotypes of an Australia that has changed dramatically since the “white Australia” policy was abandoned in 1973.

The reason given is curious: “As it happens, (India’s) window to Australia is the one Australian national institution that is the least multicultural and most prone to promoting an older, even outdated idea of the country: its cricket team. With few exceptions, Australian cricket remains largely an Anglo-Celtic preserve. When Indians superimpose the idea of the cricket team on the rest of Australia, they obviously see a very different country and society from the one that Australians themselves see, live and experience.” Consequently, the argument goes, “there is an instinctive uncertainty among the Indian establishment as to where Australia fits in Asia.”

If the objective behind this indictment of a traditional and time-tested relationship was to argue for a cricket-plus approach, it would be understandable. However, the problem with positing a theory rooted in contemporary academic fashion is that it ignores the fact that Indians, and least of all the Indian establishment, isn’t innately uncomfortable with whites, as long as their whiteness isn’t complicated by cultural condescension. India, for example, has the best of relations with South Africa, another cricketing nation where the game is still set in the social mould of the apartheid years. Will that relationship be significantly enhanced if there were more blacks and Asians representing the South Africa Test side? Are Indians prone to viewing a Shane Warne or a Jacques Kallis with suspicion at the Indian Premier League matches because they are white?

Take the United Kingdom, with which India has had an enduring but historically over-burdened relationship. Why is it that Indian visitors to London — and their numbers keep multiplying each year — still prefer a visit to Buckingham Palace to a wandering down Brick Lane? Why does the England of Agatha Christie, P.G. Wodehouse and Downton Abbey continue to fascinate English-speaking Indians? That England is old, class-ridden, exclusionary and on the retreat. But has the notion of Cool Britannia that the post-Thatcher generation promoted so assiduously made the prospect of the “enhanced partnership” more appealing? Or, are the two countries not assessing bilateral relationships through the prism of self-interest?

Even a casual visitor to Melbourne and Sydney will realize that the stereotype of white Australia does not hold any longer. However, does the prevailing multiculturalism of Australia by itself enhance its attractiveness to India? The answer is mixed. Rigid social attitudes, especially those accompanied by a wariness of the foreigner, are a deterrent to good relations, both business and diplomatic. However, a diverse society by itself is of no incremental benefit. India is an open society that is socially conservative and, often, closed. But this has little bearing on its worth as a strategic or commercial partner.

There are many compelling reasons why Australia and India need to discover each other purposefully. Cricket and the English language are worthwhile foundations for the mutual exploration process to proceed. But in the long run, there are larger questions. Does India seek a worthwhile role in the Indian Ocean and is it willing to invest in it? How does Australia balance its business relationship with China with the yearning for a strategic relationship with India? How much is Indian business willing to invest in the natural resources of Australia? Can India provide a market for Australia’s farm and dairy sector? These are issues on which the future of Australia-India relations will hinge.

The role of people of Indian origin who have made Australia their home is a small, yet important, factor in the relationship. But whereas the diaspora has an understandable interest in demolishing the last vestiges of Robert Menzies’ legacy, and even changing the demographic composition of the Australian cricket team, these are of little interest to India.