Democratic India is a far cry from one-party China

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India is not China and those who suggest that it is are missing some fundamental facts.

India defies neat categories. It has complex borders, a complex history and complex relationships. As the recent border tension with China reminds us, India lives in a hostile neighbourhood surrounded by an aggressive Pakistan and China, which sit directly on its borders and with which it has gone to war.

The divergent histories, demographics and cultures of India and Australia make the differences rather than the similarities between our nations easy to spot, but it is time Australia recognises the affinity we have with India.

To suggest that India does not share our values, as Brian Toohey argued in Nine Entertainment’s newspapers last week, is misguided, and to liken India to China is absurd. India is the world’s largest democracy. A record 610 million people voted last year in its elections, which were contested by dozens of political parties. While China holds its so-called “elections” at which only the Communist Party and its allies are permitted to stand, India has had 14 prime ministers since independence, representing seven political parties.

India is governed by the rule of law, with respect for freedoms and transparency. India’s institutions back up the democratic values that India supports globally. China is a one-party dictatorship without a properly operating court system and with no desire to give its citizens freedom.

Contrast the notorious censorship of China with India’s robust free press, which has criticised many of the Modi government’s decisions, especially about its citizenship law, its economic policies and the situation in Kashmir. There also have been public gatherings in Delhi and on university campuses to protest against India’s citizenship laws and Kashmir policy. Allowing a free press and free assembly to criticise government policy is the stuff of democracy.

The rule of law exists in India, holding governments to account. The Indian Supreme Court delivers decisions that do not always accord with the wishes or policies of the government — high-profile examples since Narendra Modi has been elected include decisions striking down a law that would have brought an end to judges appointing themselves to the court and a decision curtailing the broadest use of India’s new ID system.

Toohey’s characterisation of India is unbalanced. He accuses Modi of tolerating, not addressing, the plight of India’s poor. Modi faces challenges Australia cannot imagine. In a COVID context, Modi recently extended free rations of rice, wheat and pulses to 800 million people. The Modi government has brought hundreds of millions of people into the formal economy, delivering bank accounts, mobile technology and the Aadhaar (India’s biometric ID system) to almost every Indian.

These measures combined with demonetisation and the creation of the GST have led to a reduction in corruption and improvements in ability to deliver services such as gas for cooking, sanitation and healthcare on an unprecedented scale. Better living standards for the poorest Indians was key to Modi’s re-election.

In Toohey’s rush to attack Modi’s actions in Kashmir, he has ignored the plight of Kashmiri pandits — Hindus indigenous to that state who were effectively made refugees by a campaign of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism and ethnic cleansing; and that Kashmir’s separate status has kept Kashmiris poor and unable to access federal services that other Indians enjoy.

While it is hard to imagine an Australian government executing the intervention in Kashmir in the way the Indian government has — and India’s citizenship law with its religious discrimination sits uncomfortably with modern Australia — the benchmark for “shared values” is not complete agreement with every decision made. (Australians would not agree with every domestic policy decision of our closest ally, the US, either.) It is our parallel institutions and the values built into those institutions that closely connect us.

A stronger relationship between Australia and India will be a major foreign policy legacy for Scott Morrison. Australia and India have a shared outlook for a peaceful, prosperous Indo-Pacific region that is open, inclusive and stable; where infrastructure investments grow local economies rather than create unsustainable debt and reliance; and where nations operating within the region support the rules-based international order, especially in maritime activity. This is what Foreign Minister Marise Payne means when she says India and Australia believe “might is not right”.

It is important that Australians understand the opportunity India presents. The Lowy Institute’s 2020 poll that found 43 per cent of Australians don’t know, or inaccurately believe India is not a democracy, demonstrates that the views peddled by Toohey and friends are having a troubling impact on the perceptions of the Australian public.

India is not Australia and our co-operation with India should not be blind. But for Australia, the rise of another powerful democratic nation in a region where China is flexing its muscle daily is very good news.

Julian Leeser is the federal member for Berowra and chairman of the Parliamentary Friends of India.

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