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Concerns abound ahead of outcome of world’s largest election

While we’re still sometime off seeing the outcome of India’s general election, concerns are growing across the West about the intentions of incumbent Narendra Modi, with significant implications for Australia.

While we’re still sometime off seeing the outcome of India’s general election, concerns are growing across the West about the intentions of incumbent Narendra Modi, with significant implications for Australia.

India has been widely identified as the last great hope of the post-Second World War geopolitical and economic order, as it seeks to balance the increasing power and ambitions of Beijing and its growing web of partner nations committed to bringing about the end of the US-led world order.

For Australia, this approach to “strategic hedging” is part of the nation’s status quo for strategic planning beginning with the British Empire.


What this has meant is that Australia’s relationship with the global power paradigm has largely been characterised by a culture of deference to the ambitions and plans of a larger, more globally focused power.

Following the disastrous collapse and routing of imperial British power in the Indo-Pacific at Singapore in 1942, Australia began to look for a new great power strategic benefactor. Looking out across the vast expanse of the Pacific, Australia turned to what would become the world’s “indispensable nation”, the US – emerging from its period of self-imposed isolationism in the aftermath of the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor in late 1941 to become the world’s pre-eminent industrial, political, and strategic power at war’s end and the cornerstone of Australia’s strategic outlook and national security policy to this day.

While the British would continue to play an important role in Australia’s future strategic planning, the withdrawal of British forces East of Suez in the early 1970s effectively heralded the end of Britain’s pivotal role in Australia’s military planning; the US continued to entrench itself as the nation’s premier strategic partner.

As the world adapted following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Australia, like many nations, began to embrace the optimism and hope represented by theories about the “End of History” and the “Peace Dividend”, leaving the United States as the world’s sole and unquestioned superpower.

However, as we now know, this new paradigm was far from the promised “End of History” as Russia limped away, licking its wounds and China began its rapid ascendency to rival the post-Second World War order.

China isn’t alone in its position of ascendency, nor is it alone in having its own ambitions and designs for the post-Western world order we now appear to be stumbling towards in light of the domestic and international decline of both the United States and European powers.

India, like China, is one of antiquity’s other ancient powers, and it has emerged to become one of the world’s pre-eminent economic, political, and strategic powers – now the fifth-largest economy in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund, when measured on nominal gross domestic product, with GDP per capita still lagging dramatically, with the rising power ranked 139th globally.

The world’s largest “democracy” is also a central player in the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) economic and political bloc, rapidly evolving into an anti-post Second World War order bloc, actively engaging in the undermining of the US-dollar-centric international order and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).

While at the same time, this rising power has positioned itself firmly within the emerging post-Second World War economic, political, and strategic organs, India is equally seeking to “hedge” its bets by working with Australia, the US, and Japan as a central member of the Quad and for Australia.

Highlighting these concerns is James Curran of The Australian Financial Review, in a piece titled, As India votes, doubt grows about Modi’s intentions, where he stated, “Australia, like many in the West, has one arm firmly around Delhi’s economic and strategic opportunities and the other rather awkwardly around Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s increasingly illiberal authoritarianism.”

What’s on the tin isn’t what is advertised

Successive Australian governments have, like many across the West, increasingly seen Modi’s India as a dependable counterweight to the rising might of China in Asia and, more broadly, across the Indo-Pacific.

This has largely been driven by the nation’s status as a democracy, even if a somewhat flawed one, but mounting concerns have grown in recent months particularly following revelations that Indian spies were actively conducting espionage in Australia.

Curran stated, “Revelations of Indian espionage in Australia and the pressuring of Australian journalist Avani Dias to leave the country are raising fresh questions about exactly what kind of partner India will be in Modi’s hands. Dias’ accreditation to report on India’s general elections had been threatened. According to Human Rights Watch Australia director Daniela Gavshon, Indian authorities extended Dias’ visa by two months at the 11th hour, but ‘the government had made it too difficult for her to do her job’.

“That came shortly before The Washington Post revealed that ASIO had kicked ‘a nest’ of Indian spies out of Australia in 2020, a rare move by a ‘friendly’ nation,” he explained.

This comes at a time when relations between Australia and India have been at an all-time high, following a strengthening of the bilateral relationship, with successes like the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement and the Australia-India Migration and Mobility Partnership Arrangement, respectively.

The relationship was further strengthened during the first Australia-India Annual Summit in March of 2023, during which the nation’s two leaders agreed to a number of economic, trade and investment partnerships to boost the prosperity of both nations, including the formalisation of the India-Australia Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement (ECTA), India-Australia Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement (DTAA) among others, all designed to support the closer economic and trade ties and opportunities for the two nations.

However, it isn’t all sunshine and roses, something Curran detailed, explaining that “India is being fitted into a premade, and fundamentally flawed Western mould: as the democratic bulwark to a rising and assertive China. That has taken concrete institutional form in India’s willing membership of the Quad, alongside Australia, Japan and the United States.

“Even when India has not followed the script the West writes for it, as in its refusal to condemn Putin’s war in Ukraine, ongoing enthusiasm services a common hope that may never be achieved: a soft alliance against China,” Curran explained of India’s seeming duplicity as a result of India’s ongoing economic support for Russia.

This troublesome reality has been further exacerbated by Narendra Modi’s consistent lurch towards Hindu ultranationalism which has become a central part of his electoral success and connection with the Indian populace.

Curran added, “Modi’s cult of personality is becoming quasi-imperial. Roundabouts in India’s major cities are akin to Modi merry-go-rounds, his towering image tracking the travelling eye. India’s COVID vaccine certificates were stamped with Modi’s image. Vice-chancellors at universities have been instructed to install ‘selfie points’ so that students can capture images of themselves with the leader.

“These factors, along with the centralising of power in his office and ongoing challenges to the independence of the media and the judiciary, led distinguished Indian scholar Ramachandra Guha to declare of Modi, that ’the self-proclaimed Hindu monk of the past has … become, in symbol if not in substance, the Hindu emperor of the present’,” Curran explained of Modi and India’s slide into authoritarianism.

Trouble looming for Australia?

Highlighting mounting concerns about India, Curran posed an important question worth considering, asking, “But what kind of challenge does Modi’s India present to Australian foreign policy into the future? Indeed, the broader question here for policymakers is how will Canberra deal with Indonesia, China, Japan and India other than just fearing abandonment?”

This poignant and timely question echoes the sentiment of John McCarthy – former Australian ambassador to US, Japan, and Indonesia, and high commissioner to India – who, in 2023, warned it is time for the West and Australia to “get real” about India.

Much like the waves of optimism in political, economic, and strategic circles following the opening of China in the 1970s, the degree of elation and optimism surrounding India’s potential is responsible for much of the Western world’s approach towards India.

McCarthy explained this, stating, “In the past few years, India’s attraction for the West has increased because of its size and wealth. It is now the most populous nation globally, and in purchasing power parity terms has the world’s third-highest GDP. Its attraction has grown as concerns about China have multiplied.”

Pivotally for McCarthy, there needs to be a realisation in Australia’s strategic and policymakers when it comes to our partner India, particularly considering its broader economic, political, and strategic designs, attitudes, and ambitions towards the Indo-Pacific.

Front and centre is India’s handling of its relationship with Russia over the invasion of Ukraine and broader relationship with the post-Second World War, liberal world order, with McCarthy adding, “Moreover, India will differ radically from the West on some questions. True, as the Ukraine war has progressed, India has put some daylight between itself and Russia. But it declines to impose sanctions on Moscow. Both countries benefit from Russia’s sales of oil to India.

“And never a proponent of the Western-inspired liberal international order, India is also a leader of the disparate – but re-energised – global south, effectively the developing world.”

Ultimately, it becomes clear that India’s approach to relationships is far more transactional than is our own, or even that of the United States, with the rising power actively viewing their own self-interest as being of paramount importance for their policy making and long-term decision making.

This is also further complicated by the strong bonds of ethnicity and culture which bind Indian and Indian-Australians together, exemplified by the rockstar welcome Modi received in Sydney, when tens of thousands of Indians flocked to a Sydney stadium to get a glimpse of the “Hindu emperor of the present”.

Ashley Tellis, Tata chair for strategic affairs and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writing for Foreign Affairs, highlights the central role India’s policy of independence plays, along with the equally pivotal role of Indian self-interest in its approach to domestic and international political, economic, and strategic affairs.

“Washington’s current expectations of India are misplaced. India’s significant weaknesses compared with China, and its inescapable proximity to it, guarantee that New Delhi will never involve itself in any US confrontation with Beijing that does not directly threaten its own security. India values cooperation with Washington for the tangible benefits it brings but does not believe that it must, in turn, materially support the United States in any crisis – even one involving a common threat such as China,” Tellis explained.

Reinforcing the statements, Curran, speaking to Peter Varghese, former secretary of Foreign Affairs and Trade and before that Australian High Commissioner to India, where Varghese explained, “Whatever direction Indian politics takes over the next decade or so, it is likely to emerge as the world’s third-largest economy, a much stronger defence industrial base, and an activist foreign policy designed to position India as a separate pole in a more multipolar world. This is what India means when it says it strives to become a leading power.”

Going further, Curran and Varghese added, “How far and how fast he can implement this agenda is an open question. India is fundamentally a diverse nation which is not easily shoe-horned into a monochromatic Hindu state.”

Importantly, and harkening back to the comments made by Tellis, Varghese inescapably stated that Australia and, indeed, the West’s hedging with India may in fact be misguided, saying, “India as a balancer of China makes much less sense if it is no longer a liberal democracy. Australia wants to see China balanced because it is an authoritarian state which seeks to become the regional hegemon. An authoritarian India is a much less credible balancer than a liberal democratic India.”

Bringing us back to the comments of McCarthy, who explained, “Modi remains an unabashed Hindu supremacist whose political machine largely disregards the aspirations of Muslims and other minorities. It reacts vengefully to criticism and scores badly on most of the international indexes that measure democratic freedoms. To some, India is an illiberal democracy; to others, it’s an electoral autocracy. But, for sure, it is not a liberal democracy,” he explained further, highlighting the clearly ethnic bias and lens through which Indian public policy and strategic thinking is framed and formulated.

This attitude, particularly towards the post-Second World War order is further highlighted by Tellis who explained, “New Delhi’s deepening defence ties with Washington, therefore, must not be interpreted as driven by either strong support for the liberal international order or the desire to participate in collective defence against Chinese aggression. Rather, the intensifying security relationship is conceived by Indian policymakers as a means of bolstering India’s own national defence capabilities but does not include any obligation to support the United States in other global crises.”

Final thoughts

It is increasingly clear that Australia will need to embrace its own variation of “transactional realism”, one where our policymakers view the world as it is, rather than as we would like it to be, based on a thorough understanding of the historic, cultural, and societal differences between the emerging and established powers of the Indo-Pacific.

After all, we can see nations across the Indo-Pacific, and indeed, more broadly on the global stage beginning to make decisions in their own self-interest, particularly in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact on “just in time” global supply chains.

As the old saying goes, failing to learn from history leaves you doomed to repeat it. This is particularly important as Australia’s primary strategic benefactor, the United States, continues to stagnate in comparison to the world’s emerging great powers like China and India, while other regional powers like Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and the like, continue to grow and exert their own influence and ambitions for the region.

This is not to say that Australia should go it alone, our alliances have always allowed us to punch above our weight, we do, however, require a radically new approach to engaging with others, preparing ourselves for future challenges and clearly articulating and protecting our values and interests at home and abroad.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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