Originally published in The Hindu
As a Rhodes scholar travelling from Sydney to Oxford, way back in 1981, I didn’t feel that I could fly over nearly a billion Indians without stopping to learn, and to pay my respects.
Even then, in the three months I spent back-packing here, it was obvious to me that democratic, free India was going to be one of the world’s leading countries.
Today, with the world’s third largest economy – at least in purchasing power terms – with a vibrant free market, a booming tech sector, a population that’s eager to learn and to innovate, a gloriously rumbustious press, and an honest judiciary; with a government that’s rapidly closing the infrastructure deficit; and with an openness to the wider world, symbolised by a vast diaspora including 700,000 Indian-born Australians, India is no longer the emerging democratic super power that I frequently referenced as prime minister.
India has emerged as a democratic superpower, more than capable of providing leadership that the world often needs and that America cannot always give.
These ominous times, that would have seemed almost unthinkable just a few years back, when history had supposedly ended, are India’s chance to step up in support of free countries and free people.
Because make no mistake, this newly minted, “no limits” partnership, this new Beijing-Moscow axis, these dictators on the march; unless deterred, or somehow touched for the better, will end what until recently have been the best times ever.
Please don’t think that Russia’s latest war has been provoked by anything Ukraine has done. It’s Ukraine’s existence as a free and independent country that Russia’s ruler objects to.
It’s a war of national extermination to which no free country can be indifferent.
I know because Vladimir Putin told me as much himself, when I verbally shirt-fronted him after a Russian missile battery shot down MH17 in 2014; killing 38 Australians among 298 victims: insisting, as he did even then, in the first phase of this invasion, that the Ukrainian government was fascist, that Ukrainians were really Russians, and that Ukraine had no right to exist as an independent country, let alone to look west rather than east.
With great passion, he told me that himself eight years ago.
He wants to correct what he sees as the greatest geo-political disaster of the last century by restoring Greater Russia. That’s his dream, and it means the Baltic states and Poland are next in the firing line, once Ukraine is pulverised into submission, war crime by war crime, atrocity by atrocity, in a war his pride cannot let him lose, and his ministers are too indoctrinated or intimidated to stop.
And don’t think that China isn’t watching, nursing grievances of its own over its “century of humiliation”, and determined to take Taiwan, even though it’s never been under the sway of communism, to demonstrate that China is once more the Middle Kingdom, the world’s top country, around which all others must cluster, tremble and obey.
Australia knows what a world dominated by China would be like, because of the 14 demands publicly made of us in late 2020, that we accept all Chinese investments, accept all Chinese students, cease all criticism of China, and end our alliance with the United States.
As a fellow member of the Quad, naturally, Australia stands with India in resisting Chinese aggression over the line of control in Ladakh.
That’s what Australia has always done: stand with the victims of aggression, from Belgium in the Great War, to Poland in World War Two, to the people of East Timor when they sought their independence, to the people of Iraq against Islamic State in my time as PM, and now Ukraine to which we were the first country to despatch heavy armoured vehicles.
We have always been in the business of protecting and restoring freedom rather than seeing it taken away.
Especially when aggression has such consequences for prosperity as well as for safety. Russia’s attack on Ukraine has already caused commodity prices to spike and disrupted vital supply lines, for food quite as much as for energy.
In that sense, hundreds of millions of Indian families are already feeling the consequences of Putin’s aggression.
With these dictators set on national glory, everything bends to the power of the state; and trade is just strategy by other means, to be turned on and off like a tap. Almost unavoidably, the world will be more disrupted, and poorer, as countries rethink who can be relied on.
Prime Minister Modi grasped this when he withdrew India from the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership deal.
Almost imperceptibly for some years and then with a rush, these times have turned fraught; demanding a re-think of the China-centred globalisation of the past couple of decades – notwithstanding a world that, until very recently, was more free, more safe, and more rich by far than ever before.
As long as China has brutal and hegemonic ambitions, businesses in countries like mine have a patriotic duty not to be dependent on a country that could threaten us.
But that’s also an opportunity for India, a free, fair and trustworthy trade partner, to substitute for China in fellow democracies’ supply chains requiring manufacturing at scale, quality and price.
India’s trade minister Goyal was right when he said the other day that the new Australia-India trade deal’s ambition just to double trade within a decade was too modest. Why shouldn’t PM Modi’s “make in India” campaign extend to all the consumer lines and the intermediate goods currently made in China?
Especially now that it’s clearer that trade can only be free and fair if it’s based on the values that democracies largely have in common.
For obvious reasons, independent India sometimes kept the West at a distance. But now, 75 exemplary years on, with its democracy entrenched, there’s no reason for mutual wariness, or for India to be anyone’s junior partner.
If the free world is to have a leader 50 years hence, that’s likely to be India. If there’s still to be a “free world” 50 years hence, I suspect that will be thanks to India.
I’m sorry that there were times, during the Cold War, when the West was guarded towards India; but pleased I was part of the Australian government that agreed to sell uranium here, because of India’s abundantly demonstrated commitment to democracy and the rule of law.
Not wanting to be part of a bloc has never stopped India from recognising and rejecting militarism and aggression. More than almost any other country, India’s wars have been defensive – or in the case of East Pakistan, humanitarian.
As a country that earned its freedom, most honourably, largely through moral suasion and peaceful protest, through satyagraha, India would know the love and the passion now moving millions of Ukrainians to risk everything they hold dear for that which they hold dearest of all, freedom itself.
If there’s one country whose traditional friendship with Russia, and whose historic aloofness from power plays, and whose palpable goodwill to all, might just get through to the Kremlin and to the ordinary Russians who lives are also being blighted by this war, it’s India.
To the extent the Russian leader still has a conscience, India is uniquely placed to appeal to it, should it have a go at summoning the better angels of Russia’s nature to a new beginning; so that what’s now being torn down in spite may yet be rebuilt in spirit of generosity and goodwill.
Why not exercise the moral leadership, of which India might be more capable than any other country, to urge Russia to give up the territory it’s seized?
If Russia listens, untold further bloodshed would be averted.
Even unheeded, being the great power most ready to put principle before calculation would only enhance India’s standing in the world.