Time to outgrow frog-in-the-well Kiwi mindset

By Dev Nadkarni

It was refreshing to see Prime Minister John Key determined not to let ideology get in the way of pragmatism in the best interests of New Zealand during his state visit to India last week.

It is easy to miss the wood for the trees when one looks at the fast changing world through the rose tinted glasses of twentieth century ideology, like some Kiwis – including those in the media – do.

While no one discounts the importance of standing one’s ground as regards one’s beliefs and values, it is rather naïve to jeopardise hard to come by economic opportunities under the false notion that doing business with nations that xo not share our world view compromises our values.

Mr Key regularly fielded questions from New Zealand media about doing business with India while it continued to refuse to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

New Zealand’s stand on matters nuclear is well known in the world and has won it some respect, while also icing its relationship with countries like the United States over the years, which is only now beginning to thaw. This change of heart is happening purely in the interest of geopolitical strategy – again, an instance of pragmatism taking precedence over ideology.

In daily media briefings during the India visit, the Prime Minister explained that New Zealand would continue to reiterate its anti-nuclear stance at all international platforms including his diplomatic meetings in India and during bilaterals but added that it was important not to let that get in the way of doing business with the second fastest growing economy in the world.

The stand that some in the New Zealand media took during a visit to India with former Prime Minister Helen Clark is a classic case of missing the wood for the trees. Rather than focus on the opportunities available to New Zealand technology companies to team up with Indian engineering talent, they chose to criticise Ms Clark for visiting a company that was involved in designing some components for India’s nuclear power set up as a peripheral ancillary supplier. So very 1970s.

We can see where Mr Key is coming from when he says a “twenty first century perspective” is needed to deal with these issues. Just as in human relationships, there has to be a sense of give and take in relationships between nations, if they are to work together for mutual benefit. Even the best of friends differ in their points of view and beliefs but they rarely let those differences come in the way of the relationship they share.

The Prime Minister was also disappointed at criticism in the New Zealand media for having travelled with his entourage and delegation of 28 businesspeople from New Zealand in a Royal New Zealand Air Force jet. The Prime Ministerial entourage was travelling at the invitation of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The Indian government also accorded the trip the status of a state visit, signaling the importance it places on its developing a closer relationship with New Zealand.

It was only in the fitness of things that the entourage flew in a state plane rather than a commercial service. If costs were an issue, it must be mentioned that the visit was by no means a freebie to accompanying New Zealand media and the business delegation. Though the flights were discounted considerably, the media and business paid for their stay and local transport in India.

On the other hand, the Indian government spent far more in terms of money and resources on this state visit than New Zealand did. It assigned an Air India Airbus 320 to ferry a part of the entourage to Agra and Mumbai from New Delhi. It closed down roads in both cities to ensure smooth and safe passage to the prime ministerial motorcade. Mind you, the loss in productivity because of stalled traffic in a fast growing economic environment like India is by no means small.

In Agra, the Indian government closed the Taj Mahal to visitors to accommodate the New Zealand state visit at considerable inconvenience not just to locals but also international tourists who would have to wait several hours, undoubtedly earning opprobrium for the local tourism authorities.

Why did India have to do it for a small country like New Zealand, with which, even when it signs an FTA, the gains can’t be a patch on what it stands to gain from similar deals with resource rich, fast emerging economies in Eastern Europe and South America? None in India’s vibrant and live wire media asked this question of the Indian authorities.

The reason is partly cultural as well. “Treat a guest like God,” goes an ancient Sanskrit saying, which has found its way into almost all Indian languages. But more than that, India understands the imperatives of doing business internationally and increasingly engaging with the world’s countries – no matter how big or small – better than to let ideology and petty mindedness to get in the way.

The key to doing business with India successfully and hitching the New Zealand economy to the Indian juggernaut is to accept that India is different, it has a range of problems – many of them unpalatable, even abhorrent – and you simply can’t wish them away. But if you learn to accept them and work around them, there are overwhelming positives about this extraordinary subcontinent that can bring the most handsome of rewards.

Sir Ken Stevens of one of New Zealand’s most successful global companies, Glidepath, admits that he at first believed he could never do business in India. Today, it is one of his biggest markets for airport baggage handling systems as India emerges as the world’s largest aviation market.

We need to look outside our cosy little well at the bottom of the world. The fast growing Indian economy may well be the apocryphal princess waiting with pursed lips poised for the kiss that’ll leapfrog us into princes of wealth.

With last week’s state visit, I suspect we’ve caught the princess’ eye.

First appeared in Indian Weekender, July 2011