Liam Detering reviews Andrew Charlton’s Australia’s Pivot to India, (Collingwood: Black Inc, 2023).
Australia and India’s relationship has shown signs of maturation over the last decade after a history of false starts in the relationship between the two countries. Therefore, Andrew Charlton’s Australia’s Pivot to India, comes at a timely juncture in the Australia-India relationship. As chair of the Parliamentary Friends of India and as Federal representative of the division of Parramatta, Charlton is uniquely placed to offer an insight into the current relationship between the two countries. In outlining the opportunities for growth in the relationship, Charlton opens himself to the criticism of Allan Gyngell (which he himself quotes on page 22 of the book) that “every Australian government discovers India once, and then promptly forgets about it”. However, his book provides a nuanced critique of the relationship that does not shy away in its analysis of past governmental failures.
The book also offers a useful starting point for assessing how the Albanese-led Labor government intends to advance the bilateral relationship with India. It points to some key priorities in the relationship including defence and security and a closer economic relationship based on greater direct investment and increasing people-to-people links supported by business and educational exchange. It offers a useful medium for focusing on the increasing strength of the Indian diaspora in Australia. According to 2021 Census data, there are now 673,352 Indian-born Australians, making it the second largest diaspora after England. This growth is set to continue for much of the next decade, and Charlton outlines several key ways that the growing Indian diaspora in Australia can continue to support the wider bilateral relationship.
The structure of the book provides a witty conceptual framework through which to view the development of the relationship between Australia and India. It is separated into four key parts that demonstrate the maturation of the bilateral relationship, from acquaintances to friends to family to partners. While this analogy teeters towards becoming saccharine, it does provide a useful chronological framework of how Charlton has seen the relationship develop.
From an historical perspective, the book does not offer anything new or groundbreaking, but provides a necessary and succinct summary of some key insights drawn from archival material and diplomatic cables. It also notably draws on the work of some key scholars such as Meg Gurry, David Walker, David Lowe and Eric Meadows. The book takes up the arguments of some of these scholars and offers a welcome critique of the overused and tired trope of the ‘3Cs’ that exist in the bilateral relationship: Cricket, Curry and (British) Commonwealth. Charlton’s critique echoes the criticism of Kama Maclean’s 2020 book British India, White Australia: Overseas Indians, Intercolonial Relations and the Empire. Maclean finds that the “reliance on that odd trio to set the terms of the bilateral relationship with India remains profoundly limiting because they are framed in terms set by Australia. As such, they do not form a strong basis for dialogue or cooperation.” In his own words, Charlton says that the clichés “gave a semblance of familiarity but were a poor substitute for genuine connections in trade, investment, culture and diplomacy” (p. 101).
Charlton suggests that Australia may expand this collection of clichés to include a ‘fourth C’ within the relationship, commerce, as well as the 4Ds of democracy, dosti (Hindi for friendship), defence and diaspora. Despite his criticism of the use of the ‘3Cs’, Charlton’s book still offers a chapter devoted to each. Both cricket and cuisine (curry) are suggested as viable vehicles to further engage with the Indian diaspora. This seems to be a logical progression that answers some of the previous criticism around use of the cliché. Charlton also correctly identifies the problematic nature of using the Commonwealth as a point of convergence between the two nations.
While correctly noting this problem, Charlton’s suggestion that democracy may be a point of shared interest suffers from similar issues. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under the prime ministership of Narendra Modi, has come in for criticism for its adherence to the policy of Hindutva (roughly translated as ‘Hindu-ness’) and its suppression of political dissent. As noted in Charlton’s book, India currently ranks 161 out of 180 countries on press freedom, yet he suggests that both countries share a commitment to freedom of speech (p. 126). Press freedom and freedom of speech should surely work hand-in-hand. This criticism is mitigated by Charlton’s current position in government, and his noting of Modi’s tenure as “complex and highly debated” invites the reader to read between the lines.
Charlton’s strongest contribution lies in his analysis of commerce in the relationship between Australia and India. This strength is understandable when considering Charlton’s background as a Rhodes Scholar who has earned a PhD in economics from the University of Oxford. He argues that the real reason that relations between Australia and India have continued to remain distant is due to a lack of investment between the two in each other’s respective economies. This makes the final section of the book, which focuses on the ‘partners’ phase of the relationship all the more valuable. The only chapter in this section focuses on the different ways in which Australia can invest in India. Charlton finishes the book by quoting former Australian High Commissioner to India, Peter Varghese. According to Varghese, the diaspora “can go into the nooks and crannies of a relationship where governments cannot. And they create personal links, in business, the arts, education and civil society which can help anchor the relationship” (p. 202). Part three of the book is littered with anecdotal examples of how the Indian diaspora in Australia is contributing to investment between the two countries in each of the fields outlined by Varghese.
By finishing the book with a reflection on the growth of the Indian diaspora, Charlton is outlining a clear and logical vision for where the strength of the ‘pivot’ to India lies. It is a well-researched book that notably leans on the insights of former diplomats and the India-Australia academic community to paint a full picture of the relationship. The book therefore serves as a strong guide on the current state of the bilateral relationship and a useful reference point for anyone interested in the ongoing evolution of the India-Australia relationship.
 Australian Bureau of Statistics, Cultural diversity: Census, 28 June 2022, <https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/people/people-and-communities/cultural-diversity-census/latest-release#key-statistics> [accessed 11 November 2023].
 Kama Maclean, British India, White Australia: Overseas Indians, Intercolonial Relations and the Empire, NewSouth Publishing, 2020, p. vii, <https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/deakin/detail.action?docID=6109585>.