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  • Sandeep Sharma

New Zealand – India relations: Lost in translation

Opinion: How often do we hear the word “relationship,” when it comes to building a stronger tie between New Zealand and India? I bet, almost every time. Whether it is the government departments, business councils, or educational institutes – they all stress on the importance of building a long-term relationship, to be successful in India.

On the question of how success with India might look like, the kiwi trade pundits often look at Australia and its success with India, especially after the recently signed, Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) between India and Australia; the pundits have identified Aussies longstanding relationship with India as a key ingredient to this success. So, if it was purely a matter of relationship, why hasn’t New Zealand, a country whose foreign policy is heavily aligned to its trading opportunities, secured a trade deal with India? Or is India, the world’s fifth largest economy by nominal GDP, as per the World Economic Forum (WEF), not worth perusing?

Just in the recent months India signed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and a formal trade negotiation with the UK is underway. In the recently concluded two-day visit to India, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has instructed his trade negotiators to conclude the FTA talks with India before the Diwali festivals this year in October. India’s talks of a similar trade deal with Israel, EU and the GCC countries are also advancing well. So, the old narrative of India being a difficult country to trade and secure an FTA, is out of the window.

With New Zealand not able to secure a trade deal with India, there must be an important part of the puzzle that is missing. New Zealand has a long standing and friendly relationship with India. Initial settlers from India came to Christchurch as early as the 1850’s. There is a sizeable number of Indian diasporas of more than 220,000 and a growing number of Indian visitors plus students coming to New Zealand every year. Now, if we add our deep cricketing connections and NZ’s love for curry (umbrella term for every Indian cuisine), it is just unfathomable that Wellington still has not struck a trade chord with New Delhi.

The answer to this billion-dollar trade question might be in our understanding or misunderstanding of the word relationship. Sometimes, it is easier to get lost in translation even though you may be speaking the same language but in a completely different cultural context. For example, the Indian “head bobble” which to most Kiwis is as confusing as a “yeah - nah” is to Indians. So, do we have a classic case of lost in translation? It is worth investigating some aspects of this theory.

The oxford dictionary translates the word relationship to Sambandh (संबंध) in Hindi. The word Sambandh is used in various contexts within India; mainly in defining links within families or relations. For example, when two separate families unite through a marriage alliance between their members - bride and groom - the father-in-law or uncle-in-law of one’s son or daughter become Samdhi (समधी) or form a Sambandh (relationship). The alternate word to define relations in Hindi is Rishta (रिश्ता), again an interchangeable expression when it comes to defining or establishing relationships. The use of words Sambandh and Rishta, though interchangeable on most occasions, find its use more frequently in a family setting rather than trade or business. Having said that, businesspeople in India do use the expression Sambandh (relationship) but it is a loaded term, generally built on years of working together having earned the trust.

So how does one build Sambandh with India. It totally depends on what is your approach to this relationship. For a country like New Zealand, where the foreign policy is guided through the prism of trade, it is beneficial to understand what the equivalent term for “Business Relationship” is in Hindi, rather than the (umbrella) term relationship.

Talk to a home-grown businessperson in India, from small to medium enterprise or a multinational conglomerate – they will all emphasise on the importance of the word “Vyavahar” (व्यवहार) in business. Vyavahar in its simplest sense is the behaviour and actions of a person. The oxford dictionary translates Vyavahar to behaviour or dealings (as in business, trade). Behaviour, when dealing with India is the single most important factor to building that long term partnership based on trust, developing the confidence, and giving birth to a relationship. Vyavahar is the first lesson that any aspiring young businessperson in India gets from their family, mentor, or a business associate. Without a good Vyavahar one cannot achieve diplomatic, geopolitical, cultural engagement, or a trade deal with India.

A country’s actions are guided by their intent, which clearly reflects in their behaviour. The key to building successful business relations with India is hinged on the behaviour and not aspirations of building a long term (umbrella) relationship. We have in the past seen political statements from NZ, calling for a ban on students coming from New Delhi, ironically at a time when New Zealand’s then Foreign Minister was in New Delhi; or a flash closure of NZ borders to flights from India, barely providing any notice to their counterparts. These behaviours undo months, if not years, of hard work that trade negotiators, diplomats and private businesses on either side put in to strengthen relations between the two countries.

Staying with the Australian case – they had been very diligent over the last 11 years on trade negotiations with India, with an aggressive push in the past 5 years. Mainly due to the high confidence and friendship between Prime Minster Narendra Modi and Scott Morrison. The engagement between Australia and India has ranged from trade to security in the Indo Pacific through the QUAD alliance. Prime Minster Scott Morrison’s keen interest in India and his constructive comments on initiatives like the Raisina Dialogue, created a positive environment for trade negotiations to accelerate. Morrison appointed former Australian PM Tony Abbott to lead a five-day trade mission to India, demonstrating Australia’s seriousness to the trade talks. In a historical move, Australia also repatriated artefacts to India dating back to the 9-10th century, including statues of deities worshipped widely across India – instantly wining the hearts of millions of Indians. Sending the right messages, creating a social license, and showcasing trust: All these actions amounted to signalling the right behaviour of a trusting partner, which was reciprocated by India in more than equal measure, finally resulting in the singing of a historical Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA). Some political analysts are calling CECA as part of Scott Morrison’s political agenda for the upcoming national elections in Australia. But it is not just Australian politics where CECA is becoming the flavour of the month – opposition voices across the ditch in NZ are also criticising the current government for not doing much on the trade opportunities with India.

A countries foreign policy always acts in its own national interest, with trade being an important subtext to it. However, for trade relations to flourish it needs two key ingredients. First is the people-to-people connection and their willingness to work together; secondly the top leadership on both sides coming together and showing commitment to the relationship. The people-to-people connections between NZ and India is already strong, now it is time for the leadership to commit to building the much-needed Vyavahar.

Written By:

Sandeep Sharma

Chief Executive of Quality New Zealand Education Ltd,

Christchurch Chapter Head of the INZBC & Chair of NZIIA - Christchurch.

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