But in the process of trying to suck up to India and its authoritarian prime minister, Narendra Modi, Australian politicians tend to go overboard. And that aptly describes the views of Julian Leeser, the MP for Berowra and chairman of the Parliamentary Friends of India, who has written an op-ed about India in The Australian on Tuesday..
Leeser's article appears to have been prompted by a piece penned by veteran investigative journalist Brian Toohey for the Nine Newspapers; Toohey, in my view, was quite restrained in what he said and never wrote a false sentence.
And who am I to judge? Well, I happen to know a little about India, having been born an Indian and also lived in the country for 14 years before I finally left its shores in 1987. My employment included stints with the Deccan Herald and the Bangalore edition of the Indian Express, and that added greatly to whatever insight I claim to bring to this debate.
He is correct on this score. The problem is that he tends to hide inconvenient facts about India. The country claims to be the world's biggest democracy, but that is misleading; in Indian elections, votes are bought en masse and the politicians with the biggest war chests always win. And I speak from personal experience. The Indian elections may be colourful and result in 610 million people voting, but to claim that they are free and fair is an almighty stretch.
Leeser states that India is governed by rule of law, with respect for freedoms and transparency. Now I am proud of my Indian background, but that is a big fib. India is governed by the law of might — the bigger you are, and the more money you have, the more things can be influenced your way — and people have no respect for freedom or transparency.
And he fails to make any mention of the endemic corruption in the country. It is so pervasive that the late Indira Gandhi, a great patriot herself, once said, "Corruption is a way of life in India." No transaction of any magnitude can take place without rupees changing hands; it is open, organised and everyone in the bureaucracy is paid on a sliding scale.
Claims that India has a free press would have been true some 30 years ago. Now it is mostly cash for news; 10,000 rupees buys so many column inches, 20,000 rupees buys so many. The rate, of course, changes from time to time. Many of my peers quit the profession in disgust when it turned into a bazaar of this kind. I left the country in part because I saw this coming. You can now count on the fingers of one hand the number of institutions that actually practise journalism. Updated: India is now 142nd out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index, a statistic that says more than a thousand words.
Journalists are intimidated and beaten up when some politician wants to keep news about him or his political party coming out. One courageous woman, Gauri Lankesh, whose father ran a tabloid known as Lankesh Patrika in Bangalore, was brutally murdered because of her crusading journalism. I dd some work for her father a long time back and she was one of the many enterprising women who entered the profession around the time when I was taking baby steps at my first daily newspaper.
Leeser takes issue with Toohey's characterisation of Modi as being tolerant of the plight of India's poor, and not addressing their plight. Modi has done a lot for the poor, but all of it is geared towards ensuring his own electoral future. His gestures are dictated by the caste and creed of the poor; you can be sure that the Muslim masses will not be treated with the same sympathy as the Hindu masses.
Modi's sudden decision to pull 500 and 1000 rupee notes from circulation in 2016 hit the poor badly; the decision was pushed by foreign interests who want India to move to digital payments as it would benefit them. But millions of poor people have no bank accounts and were unable to buy their daily supplies when Modi suddenly announced this move on prime time TV on 8 November and then brought it into force four hours later.
The move was said to be aimed at bringing about the end of the black economy. Modi is not the first to have the idea of flushing out "black money". Back in 1967, the then Indian finance minister Morarji Desai had the brilliant idea of raising taxes well beyond their existing level; the maximum marginal tax rate was raised as high as 97.75%.
Desai, who was better known for drinking his own urine, reasoned that people would pay up and that India’s budgetary problems would become more manageable. Instead, the reverse happened. India has always had a problem with undeclared wealth, a kind of parallel economy. The amount of black money increased by leaps and bounds after Desai’s ridiculous laws were promulgated.
Seven years later, in 1974, the new finance minister Y.B. Chavan brought down rates by some 20 percentage points, but by then the damage had been done. The amount of black money in India today is estimated to be anything from 30 to 300 times the national budget.
One of the most callous acts by Modi recently was to remove the special status accorded to the state of Jammu and Kashmir after independence. This action was aimed at mollifying the Hindus in the state; Modi has made no secret about his fondness for Hindu fundamentalism. Hindu mobs have been emboldened by it sufficiently to attack Muslims without any provocation. In fact, during the time when US President Donald Trump was in India, mobs attacked Muslims openly in the capital, New Delhi.
Leeser talks about the Kashmir issue and mentions the plight of the Hindu pandits there without having any idea of the background. At the time of partition in 1947, Pakistan wanted Jammu and Kashmir, a region which was part of the former princely state of the same name, to join the so-called land of the pure as it was a Muslim-majority region. But the main political party, the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference, was allied to the main Indian party, the Indian National Congress, and would not permit it.
The ruler of the state, Maharaja Hari Singh, could not decide, and dragged his feet on the decision. In October 1947, a few months after both Pakistan and India had declared independence, Pakistani tribesmen attacked J&K, with backing from their country. Hari Singh asked for help from India, but was told it would be conditional on the state acceding to India.
Indian forces succeeded in pushing Pakistan out of some part of J&K; the portion which is still occupied by Pakistan to this day is called Pakistan-occupied Kashmir by India and Azad Kashmir by the Pakistanis. The Indian portion is called the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir by India and Indian-administered Kashmir by Pakistan.
Soon after J&K acceded to India, the matter was taken to the United Nations by the Indian leader of the time, Jawaharlal Nehru. The UN decision was that a plebiscite would be held after the status quo ante had been restored. This meant that Pakistan had to withdraw from the portion of Kashmir it held, and India had to do likewise, leaving only enough forces to maintain law and order.
Despite numerous efforts by the UN, no solution has been reached. Proposals for Pakistan to withdraw have been countered by assertions that there was no guarantee that India would follow suit. Pakistan has raised the issue of India not holding a plebiscite quite often, despite the fact that this was to be held only after both sides had withdrawn.
Two wars have been fought over Kashmir, in 1965 and 1971, the latter leading to the creation of Bangladesh out of the former East Pakistan. A line of control was decided on after the 1971 war and the two countries committed to a peaceful resolution of the dispute.
India had better standing in the state for a long time, until it rigged the elections in 1986. The leader of the J&K National Conference, Sheikh Abdullah, was a strong supporter of a secular state, and as long as he was alive, India was in the ascendant. But after his death, his son Farooq, more of a playboy than a politician, began to lose support. Fearing a loss in the 1986 elections, India rigged the process. This annoyed the people of the state and since then opposition to India has grown. As protests became more organised and resulted in militancy — which Pakistan fomented — India sent in more and more troops to keep the peace.
The protests then ballooned into running battles, with Pakistan supplying arms to those who opposed India. From that point onwards, things have only gotten worse and something like a civil war has raged there. Periodically, the temperature rises more than normal. Then everything goes back to being a festering sore.
As Leeser says, India is a complex country. The problem is that he has attempted to reduce it to a very simple picture, ignoring facts and the myriad wheels that exist within wheels. That can only result in a false picture being portrayed. As it has.