It has a population of 1.4 billion and the fastest-growing major economy in the world – so why isn’t the NZ-India relationship stronger? An Australian expert explains what the public gets wrong about India, how his country has built deep ties, and his advice for Aotearoa

When New Delhi hosts the G20 leaders’ summit in September, the prestigious gathering of world leaders will hold symbolic value beyond what is discussed.

The first G20 summit to be hosted in India – or South Asia for that matter – also serves as a chance for the country to shine on the world stage, says Dr Ian Hall, an international relations professor and deputy director of Australia’s Griffith Asia Institute.

“Its influence is growing, but its ambition is also growing: not so much an ambition to take back territories or those sorts of things, but …to play a bigger role in the world,” says Hall.

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Since gaining independence in 1947, the country has believed it deserved more recognition “as a great civilisation in and of itself”, but until recently lacked the necessary influence to make its case.

“The brute reality is that you can have five or seven or eight thousand years’ worth of history, but unless you’ve got economic power and wealth and a diplomatic footprint … then you can’t transmit that beyond India.”

Playing a critical role in that expanding diplomatic footprint has been Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister since 2014 who is almost certain to win a third term in power next year.

Unlike some Indian politicians, Modi had travelled abroad before becoming the country’s leader, having been received in China’s Great Hall of the People as chief minister of Gujarat.

Though Modi was still far from a natural diplomat when he came into higher office, Hall says the prime minister made a conscious decision to announce India was back on the world stage, attracting foreign investment with a more business-friendly approach.

That effort has borne fruit, with practical improvements such as sharply reduced processing times at New Delhi airport helping to burnish the country’s image.

Modi’s ultimate goal, says Hall, is for India to be recognised not just for its economic power and large population but its “extraordinary cultural wealth”, standing upright as one pole in a multipolar world.

In a world where major powers are increasingly aligned to one ‘side’ or the other, India stands out. It is a member of the Quad with the United States, Australia, and Japan – but it has continued to buy oil and military equipment from Russia even as global condemnation grows over Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Both countries have accelerated their infrastructure construction, they have pushed troops into that area: for a while there, we had around 50,000 to 100,000 troops on both sides sitting, not eyeball to eyeball but pretty close to each other, and that is a flashpoint.”
– Dr Ian Hall, on the India-China border dispute

Hall says the India-Russia relationship is built on strong sentimental ties dating back to the Cold War, when the Soviet Union provided significant economic and military assistance, but has reduced in significance over recent years.

Despite India’s “multi-aligned” approach to foreign policy, he adds, it has in reality ended up leaning much more closely towards the US in the past decade – a state of affairs that explains the muted American response to ongoing India-Russia ties, as well as sensitive topics such as human rights concerns in Kashmir.

“The United States is playing a long game with India: it believes that over time the interests of the United States and India will converge, and that there is more to be gained by being subtle and diplomatic and quiet about disagreements.”

As the India-US relationship has grown, relations between India and China have deteriorated. Beijing and New Delhi have teamed up in the past to push back against the US, including at 2009’s Copenhagen climate change conference, but Hall says tensions associated with the growing economic disparity between the two countries has put paid to such cooperation.

Chief among those is a border dispute dating back decades which has become more fraught in recent years. A 2017 standoff between Chinese and Indian troops along the disputed Bhutan border lasted several weeks, and in 2020 clashes in Ladakh led to the deaths of dozens of soldiers.

While much of the speculation about a China-linked war focuses on Taiwan, Hall says another major border clash could flare into something equally dangerous for the region, despite efforts at de-escalation.

“Both countries have accelerated their infrastructure construction, they have pushed troops into that area: for a while there, we had around 50,000 to 100,000 troops on both sides sitting, not eyeball to eyeball but pretty close to each other, and that is a flashpoint.”

Hindu hardliners not the whole Modi story

Another issue of concern for some is the rise of Hindutva, a strain of Hindu nationalism that has grown in prominence under Modi’s BJP party but is described by critics as a form of right-wing extremism or fascism.

“The last thing that any of us want to see is India’s democracy being eroded away [and] becoming an increasingly authoritarian state, let alone one that’s informed by an exclusive ideology,” Hall says.

However, he believes it is important to distinguish between the “harder line, narrower ideology” of Hindutva that talks about the subjugation of minorities, and broader Indian nationalism which sometimes includes elements of Hindu pride.

“India’s middle class wants India to be great, wants India to be strong, wants India to be powerful, but it isn’t necessarily convinced by the fine-grain detail of the hardline Hindu right, and those people are still voting for the Modi government and for the BJP because they think they’re going to deliver those outcomes.”

Modi’s electoral success has come not just from the support of Hindu hardliners, but an aspirational middle class as well as rural women whose lives have improved through new welfare payments. If Modi were to be replaced by a more hardline Indian nationalist, Hall predicts that coalition of voters would fall apart and the BJP would in turn fall out of power.

For the time being, it is Modi who foreign leaders must work with, and whose support is critical to moving bilateral relationships forward.

Australian academic Dr Ian Hall says a strong relationship with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a critical part of any country’s efforts to deepen ties with India. Photo: Sam Sachdeva

Hall says Australia-India ties have blossomed in part because of the efforts of past leaders such as Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison to build up a rapport with Modi; a brief lull came during the leadership of Malcolm Turnbull, who subsequently expressed his scepticism about Modi and India.

That could be an important lesson for New Zealand, which has not had a bilateral leader-to-leader visit since Sir John Key went to India in 2016.

Australia and India signed an “early harvest” trade deal last year as the precursor to a more comprehensive arrangement, with significant gains for some Australian exporters but no change yet for more sensitive sectors.

This is in sharp contrast to the approach taken by New Zealand, with bilateral trade talks in effect frozen because of India’s protectionist approach to its agriculture sector.

“There was a bit of political pragmatism as well as some economic pragmatism around that,” Hall says of the early harvest deal, expressing scepticism about Australian talk of a comprehensive deal by the end of the year given the importance of the farmer vote in India.

“You can’t win elections without winning the votes of farmers and agricultural labourers, and if you upset them as we saw with the farmer protests a couple of years ago in India, they can threaten to bring down governments.”

Pacific a place for discussion

That suggests little reason for optimism about a New Zealand-India FTA, at least not without significant compromise on the Kiwi side. But Hall says Aotearoa will have to work with India regardless, given its sizeable diaspora and power.

Australia started to build up its own ties with India “just by listening”, holding a series of strategic dialogues where each country could be candid about their respective lack of understanding to build up trust.

But that advice comes with a caveat: “Grabbing India’s attention and holding it is immensely difficult.” In addition to adept diplomacy, Australia has had the benefit of being pushed closer together with India through the Quad – something New Zealand cannot rely on.

Instead, Kiwi politicians and officials will have to find their own entry point into the conversation – and Hall believes that may come in the form of the Pacific, where India is joining a suite of other nations in building up its engagement.

“As other countries come into the Pacific … it’s really going to be up to us to say these are the terms of conversation that will be productive, this is what you need to know, this is what you shouldn’t do, and I think that will help to build a stronger bond between the two countries.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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