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Coffee with BS: Peter Varghese

The bloodless diplomat

Jyoti Malhotra  |  New Delhi 

Peter Varghese

Whether it's racist attacks on or the Chinese attitude in the Rio Tinto case, Australia's Indian-origin high commissioner chooses to remain focused on "hard interests".

Australian high commissioner says he is preparing for the visit of his foreign minister (in the run up to Diwali) and his Prime Minister next month, so could we please do Coffee at his residence in the heart of Delhi’s Diplomatic Enclave? In the end, the south Indian brew is had quickly and the Australian-made biscuits are left untouched, perhaps because they distract from the conversation, writes Jyoti Malhotra.

Varghese is the first foreign ambassador of Indian origin posted to New Delhi, a city littered with diplomats of Indian origin these days. Varghese is special not only because he is the first ambassador from this group with a half-and-half bond, or because he is an emigrant twice removed (one of nine siblings, he was born in Kenya where his parents moved during the Quit India movement in 1942 from Tripunittra in Kerala, before they finally migrated to in 1964), but also because his government has been accused of racism against back home in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide.

Varghese has a feline grace about him — watchful, smooth, friendly, though aware that he’s in a tough neighbourhood. You can put that down to his tough growing up years in a country just shedding its ‘white Australia’ policy, from learning to compete with grace and intelligence to keeping a low profile — the immigrant’s handbook itself.

It’s not surprising to learn he was a medalist in history at the University of Queensland where he met his wife, Margaret (an Irish-Australian), or joined in the elite Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade in 1979 soon after he graduated. He has served in Vienna, Washington, Tokyo and Malaysia.

If diplomatese is the victory of jaw-jaw over war-war, then Varghese is your quintessential bloodless diplomat. He speaks slowly and evenly, rolling each word around his head before he utters it, and is neither shaken nor stirred as he defends his country in each of the racist rows from the Mohammed Hanif episode in 2007 to the attacks against this year.

You can see why he has been Canberra’s favourite trouble-shooter. He not only breaks down the stereotype of the white, loud Australian male giving the poor Indian a black eye, but as head of its Office of National Assessments — it is a supra-body responsible for all foreign policy, economic, strategic and intelligence assessments — Varghese reported directly both to the previous Conservative Prime Minister John Howard as well as the current Labour Prime Minister

Howard often sent him to India to gift-wrap Canberra’s assent on the Nuclear Suppliers Group which paved the way for the Indo-US nuclear deal. Rudd, who followed up Howard’s commitment on the NSG but went back on his promise to supply uranium to India, has sent him to serve in Delhi today.

Delhi is a key assignment not only because the public relationship is so bad, but because both sides are watching. Methinks, the Australians are watching the Indians who’re watching him.

“When my parents came to Australia, the country still had in place the white policy… they thought the prospects for the kids would be good ... It turned out to be a terrific decision, although for them it would have been a step in the dark. (My father) didn’t have the security of tenure. Today we run a very open, points-based immigration system, but it didn’t exist then for people from an Asian background. But he still chose to come, must have made a judgement that things were changing,” says Varghese.

Along with his parents’ never-say-die spirit, Varghese seems to have honed their Syrian Christian pragmatism to a fine art. If went back on the uranium promise, well, that’s because you have to understand the nature of Labour politics — that is, uranium sales can only be carried out with countries who, unlike India, have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Clearly, he is keen that differences over the nuclear issue are subsumed by the profit motive. Two-way trade is $16 billion and growing, underlined by the August $20 billion LNG deal between India’s Petronet LNG and Australia’s Exxon Mobil in which 1.5 million tonnes of LNG will be delivered annually over 20 years.

“Diplomatic relationships are based on interests. The reality has been that for quite a long time the hard interests between us weren’t that many. That began to change when India began to open up its economy in the early ’90s … As India continues down this path, its own definition of its interests, in my view, will continue to evolve and move in a direction that is closer to our own interests,” Varghese says.

Among the shared interests, he adds, is the “stability of East Asia” and the attempt to make China part of a “rules-based system and ensure that the rise of China is not strategically destabilising”.

Considering China is Australia’s largest exporter and bilateral trade in 2008 stood at $53 billion, Canberra’s interest in drawing Delhi into a strategic dialogue on China is, needless to say, interesting. You could put it down to the Australian visit in August of Rebiya Kadeer, the Uighur human rights activist whom Beijing has likened to the splittist Dalai Lama, or even the June Chinese arrest of a senior employee of the Anglo-Australian Rio Tinto mining giant on charges of spying — this, after Rio Tinto rejected a bid by China’s Chinalco to double its stake for $19.5 billion and went with its major competition, BHP Billiton, instead.

But Varghese hastens to add that although the arrest of the Chinese-Australian is “obviously an issue ... is not putting its relationship with China on hold because of the arrest of one man.”

In fact, Australia’s trade minister Simon Crean has already signalled a return to business as usual : “I can’t stand this view of life that we have to fear the Chinese,” Crean told the Australian Financial Review in August. It helped, that in the same month, Exxon Mobil signed the country’s largest ever contract with PetroChina for LNG worth $41 billion.

Australia’s moral contradictions stare us in the face. On the one hand, Varghese argues, “You’ve got to take the world as it is, the whole business of diplomacy is about dealing with things as they are … there’s no point running on moral indignation.” On the other, he defends Canberra’s vehement criticism of India’s 1998 nuclear tests as well as Rudd’s current refusal to sell uranium to India as one based not on “deeply ideological politics,” but because “Australians play their politics quite hard”.

In short, it’s a pragmatic country. As for the Indian racist attacks, Varghese only acknowledges “some cases” of racial prejudice, the large part being “opportunistic urban crime” and/or education agents who misled students into thinking that studying in Australia was an easy back door to immigration.

It doesn’t matter that visiting Australian immigration minister Chris Evans recently tried to shift the blame on the poorer Indian students whose calibre, he claimed, was either not up to the mark or who were not able to handle the pressure of the cosmopolitan Australia.

Towards the end of the hour-long interview, it’s the turn of the media to become the culprit. “There was a lot of exaggeration in the media reporting,” Varghese says, both in India and Australia, about the Indian student attacks as well as the Mohammed Hanif episode. I argue it was the Australian media’s coverage which ultimately gave Hanif his freedom. Varghese adds, “I am not going to defend the Australian media, they can fend for themselves. Like the Indian media, the Australian media loves a good story and will at times invent a good story.”

First Published: Tue, October 27 2009. 00:54 IST