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Delhi Games: Gillard\ tightrope


Rory Medcalf


27 September 2010 15:47

Cassandra or Pollyanna' Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard is caught in a cursedly difficult position over security at the forthcoming Commonwealth Games. The Indian press calls her a doomsayer, while some Australian papers think she's hedging her warnings too much.

It all began last week when she quoted the Australian Government's long-standing travel advice, which notes the number of terrorist attacks that have occurred in the Indian capital in the past decade, suggests that there are indications of terrorists planning new attacks, and warns that these games will take place in a 'high risk' terrorism environment.

Some normally-sensible Indian observers saw these comments as willfully exacerbating the sense (however justified) of negativity around the Games — in other words, an unhelpful and diplomatically insensitive thing to do. One suggested that it was not accurate of her to refer to 14 attacks in Delhi in the past decade, given that five of those were 'serial blasts' in different parts of town on the same day. True, but not a correction I found very reassuring – and I used to live there. 

The Indian media's criticism misses the point. Ms Gillard was in fact fending off media questions about perceived dangers at the Games by resorting to the normally safe diplomatic tactic of quoting an existing public document rather than saying anything new.

Moreover, the fundamental feature of Australia's position in this whole mess — which the Indian media seems to overlook — is that Canberra is doing everything it can not to issue blanket instructions or guidance for the Australian team. That is a position the Indian Government and media should welcome, and if the substitute for a 'do not go' directive is to repeat some painful facts about Delhi's security situation, so be it.

Indeed, Ms Gillard is now under a competing and growing pressure domestically to issue just such a team-wide instruction. Australian media commentators are suggesting, not unreasonably, that it is unfair to expect young athletes — many in or just out of their teens — to make individual decisions about traveling to a potentially dangerous location. It helps, though, to get the facts right – and one worked-up columnist has hardly helped by describing the recent wounding of two Taiwanese tourists in Delhi as 'executions' and 'murders'. 

For its part, the Indian commentariat should understand where its Australian counterparts are coming from. India's media, with its often wild coverage of student safety issues in Australia, knows all about the storm of confusion that competitive and jingoistic impulses can generate when a government is seen to be complacent about the safety of citizens abroad. (And that story could soon reawaken.) 

From the perspective of bilateral relations, the Australian Government has so far hardly put a foot wrong during the Commonwealth Games tensions. It is also true, as Australian Government representatives are saying endlessly, that the official travel advice speaks for itself: it neither makes Delhi sound like a cocoon for the casual visitor, nor a no-go zone for someone who has reason to be there.

The fact is that much of the world is more trouble-prone and less secure than Australia, and New Delhi is a prominent part of that world. Australians are often known for their willingness to chance new horizons, and some young Australians have volunteered to face very serious risks every day in another part of South Asia, as this writer provocatively reminds us. Still, if Australian athletes and spectators in India get into strife or worse in the weeks ahead, we can expect the Australian media to be unforgiving towards the Gillard Government and its diplomacy.

Photo courtesy of Delhi 2010.