Sonia Sadiq Gandhi, founder of the India Australia Business & Community Alliance (IABCA), an international initiative to boost bilateral ties, is gung-ho about the way things are going.
The free trade agreement between the two countries, billed the Economic Co-operation & Trade Agreement (ECTA) has just been ratified, she successfully organised the first-ever edition of her India Australia Business & Community Awards in India (it was always held in Australia till now) with gala parties and events across Mumbai and Delhi, and the Aussie premier Anthony Albanese just concluded a state visit to India.
Australia is chumming up big time with India, at a faster pace than the frosting over of its camaraderie with China. And the ECTA promises a dramatic uptick in people-to-people, as well as business-to-business rapport between the two countries.
Gandhi took time off from her hectic schedule on her recent India trip to talk to THE WEEK. Excerpts:
What is IABCA into?
We do one of the largest awards programmes in Australia, and it is unique as far as business chambers go. The platform shares people’s stories and journeys in the bilateral space. It’s not necessarily always hunky dory, right? The challenges also come out. We drive government policy and agenda by sharing these stories as a national platform in Australia.
The platform is creating a voice of influence across sectors. I will give you an example of how we sustain: last night (an Australian) company came in at our dinner and wanted to find partners in India. But according to the ECTA, you have to wait for 12 months before commencing business. (We) immediately connected her with five business chambers. Where we come in is, we are connecting the dots where the government is not there; we are there at an informal level.
And vice versa. Suzlon is taking a delegation to Australia. I gave him (Suzlon’s international business chief) (so many contacts that) now he says “you’ve introduced me to too many people!”
Australia-India relationship has improved in recent years.
Education plays a massive part. Deakin University just announced that 48 per cent of their international students are from India, the highest ever. Migration has changed. Now, India has overtaken China for the first time. In the last 10 years, top three countries where people were migrating from used to be the UK, New Zealand and China. Now it is India, UK and New Zealand, with China (dropping to) fourth place.
That itself is a game changer. So many are coming in, and that is where brand ambassadors are created. That’s a big driver for bilateral relations.
Arts and culture, I feel, is also quite a big thing. I have been running the Australian edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival in South Australia in a tie-up with Teamwork for the past five years. We’ve had everyone from Shashi Tharoor to Shobhaa De. The other was Confluence, where we brought 90 artists from India. I’ve been in Australia for 24 years and I’ve never seen anything like the coverage India’s traditional art forms like Bharatanatyam and Kathak got in mainstream Australian media – when an Aussie reads that, it is educational. (But) when an Indian reads it, it gives you this warm sense of pride. The soft power of culture is absolutely great.
I am not gonna talk about prejudice, because all that stopped and everyone knows about it. But I must say, a lot of our Australian politicians have to be careful about the words they use. I have seen announcements around “Indian students” and “criminality” Those are very damaging (and) create a real emotional challenge, especially for business people.
But the articulation of the relationship is at its peak now. And I loved what Piyush Goyal said, “governments can transform business and trade, but business leaders have to take the reins forward, and people within those businesses will have to lead the charge, because finally the relationship is about the people.” Our foreign minister Penny Wong said, “Foreign policies start with who we are as people.” And that is so true.
Do Australians come to India much?
Tourism Australia has done a fabulous job. It is about educating an audience. (But surprisingly) Incredible India doesn’t (even) have an office in Australia, they closed nearly five years ago. There is a lot of fragmented marketing. For example, Taj does a sensational job. Then there are other players. But I don’t see the (common) narrative that Incredible India used to do.
Indians do go to Australia to study or to migrate, but that mass fascination of visiting a place as a tourist, maybe even to see locations seen in a Bollywood film, like to Western Europe, is not there with Australia.
There isn’t, and I will tell you why. Australia is taking it easy with India right now. Because it is now Hollywood’s biggest market for outstation shooting. Right from Marvel to Tom Cruise, you will see them filming in Australia. From an Australian point of view, (that’s why) having those Incredible India campaigns then becomes critical.
What are the opportunities an Australian businessman can look at with ECTA now in place? And vice versa?
Ricky Ponting will be launching his wine (from Tasmania) soon in India. The ECTA offers tariff reductions as you go along.
I think a lot of Australians are starting to think about the partnership with India, and how to go about it. Partnerships to Aussies means different from what it means to Indians. This is where (mutual) education comes in. Partnership to Australians is quite rigid, and structured partnership, moving on from transactional to a relationship. I don’t want to box into wines or education, I would say Australians as a whole should start to look to India and find partners for all the successful ventures they have and can do in India. But don’t just jump into it – come do a recce and find partners. Because you cannot do business in India without partners.
Sectors where there is an opportunity?
Pre-Covid, Australia was looking at India for manufacturing, but now it is shifted to “should we start looking at in-house manufacturing?” (Though that may) really not be sustainable.
Another thing is sports and e-commerce. From soft power point of view, I would say cultural diplomacy is a big thing. Arts and culture exchange is critical and something that has not been explored beyond an extent in the past. This is a unique model that can work.
As also aged care. Australia is already an established market, and India is the youngest country. But Australia is ageing and we are so good at taking care of the aged population. That trend of senior living etc, there is no stigma attached to it in India anymore. If you are the world’s youngest now, that means you will have the world’s (biggest chunk of) old people at some point of time. So you got to be prepared!
Sustainable energy, renewable power, and electric mobility too.
What can Indian businesses hope to from Australia?
In New South Wales, the government has the largest amount of tech firms, and the highest number of employees are in TCS. Almost all tech firms and banks have their back-ends here. I am thinking (in a lot of) unconventional (areas).