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Interview with Natasha Jha-Bhaskar – Elevating role of Australian business in the Australia India bilateral trade engagement

By Anji Kurian, Governance Institute of Australia

We speak with policy and diplomacy expert Natasha Jha-Bhaskar, Executive Director of Newland Global Group and 2022 CEW scholar for the Governance Institute Effective Director Course about the urgency to elevate the Australian business interest and role in the ongoing development of the Australia-India Free Trade Agreement, called the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA).

Public policy expert Natasha Jha-Bhaskar works at the convergence of economics, policy, strategy, and corporate advisory. Growing up in the small town of Mathura in Northern India, known for the Indian Oil Corporation’s (IOCL) Petroleum Refinery, Natasha studied at the Delhi Public School Mathura Refinery and then went on to graduate with a degree in History from the famed Lady Sri Ram College in New Delhi.

‘The trajectory of my work and career, has always been about how I could get meaning, purpose and impact all aligned in the work I do. And Lady Sri Ram College, which is known as LSR, was the ideal setting for this thinking. LSR stood for leadership with social responsibility.’

After completing her post-graduate studies in communications at the prestigious Mass Communication Research Centre at Jamia Millia Islamia, where she graduated as a gold medallist, Natasha went on to join the Indian Parliament, the Lok Sabha, where she worked for 12 years as a Senior Policy Advocacy and Communications Advisor. It was during this time that she had the opportunity to do a Master of Public Policy at the University of Brunei Darussalam, Brunei. Natasha was there on a Commonwealth Scholarship, at the Faculty of Business, Economics and Policy Studies, graduating with merit in 1st position.

‘Working in the edifice of Indian democracy, the Indian Parliament has helped me feel the pulse of the nation. Policy research, analysis, and communication, across diverse sectors – engaging with state governments, engaging with think tanks, ministries, experience working with Members of Parliament. I recall arriving at Parliament as early as 7:00 am, to access the reference and research wing and sit there for hours to make sense of legislative bills, and issues.’

After moving to Australia in 2018 to join her husband, who is a neurologist, Natasha set aside what was to be a year’s sabbatical, just one month in, her interest was piqued by the pace and focus of the new economic engagement narrative between Australia and India.

The catalyst for this was the India Economic Strategy to 2035 (IES 2035) report written for the Australian Government by Peter Varghese AO the former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and former Australian High Commissioner to India. ‘I always tell Peter that he was the reason I am now doing the work I am doing. It was a 500-page report; I was on a sabbatical with time on my side. So, I read the report in detail and realised that there was much that I could contribute, given my policy experience within the Indian parliament.’

‘The Australian-India bilateral relationship has seen significant elevation in recent years, with the upgradation of ties to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP), and the signing of the AI-ECTA. There are also mini and multilateral engagements within the larger Indo-Pacific economic architecture realm through Quad, trilateral frameworks, and supply chain resilience initiatives, and country-specific strategies the India Economic Strategy (IES) and Australia Economic Strategy (AES) endorsed by both federal governments.’

Supporting increased Australia-India business literacy and expanded trade and investment links became the focus of Natasha’s early work as she began engaging with some of the top think tanks including the Lowy Institute and the Observer Research Foundation, both of whom invited Natasha to write about the growing Australia/India trade ties and where this could go.

‘My writing focussed on my understanding of the political-economic complexities, opportunities, operational drivers and barriers of the world’s fastest-growing economy, India, knowledge of India’s complex governance structure, the plethora of federal/state regulations/policy and procedures of doing business. And my thinking around matching India’s domestic priorities with Australia’s competitive strengths, and how this could help drive bilateral economic growth driven by tangible results and outcomes.’

With her articles attracting attention, Natasha found herself headhunted as the General Manager of the Australia India advisory firm Newland Global Group.

‘When Peter Varghese AO authored the India Economic Strategy to 2035, he prioritised 10 economic sectors, including education (flagship sector), agribusiness, resources and tourism, as well as health, financial services, energy, infrastructure, science and innovation and sport which will play a very strong role in building that engagement with India. Hence, these were some of the key sectors which were identified in my work, when I took on the role as General Manager at Newland Global Group.’

The Newland Global Group, where Natasha is now Executive Director, is a boutique advisory firm that sits at the intersection of policy, trade and investment, advising Australian companies that are exploring the Indian market and Indian companies that are looking at the Australian market, weaving those real-time experiences of these companies to inform other companies what has been done right in the market and more importantly what not to do.

‘What we are doing is using case studies or their real-life business experiences of the government apparatus or their experience of the market itself to build the advocacy piece for the Australia/India economic engagement. So, it’s very real-time. It’s not theoretical, it’s not imaginary. It’s not about how it should be done. This is about showcasing the way it is being done.’

The focus on the Australia-India bilateral economic ties really came into play in 2014 when Narendra Modi came to power. Tony Abbott was the first foreign leader to visit India at the time. During his visit to Australia at the end of 2014, the first visit by an Indian Prime Minister in 28 years, Prime Minister Modi during his historic address to the Central Hall of Parliament in Canberra said that ‘Australia was no longer at the periphery of India’s vision but at the centre of its thoughts.’ That is when the narrative started shifting.

‘The two countries were also trying to revive the trade deal which they had been trying to negotiate for some time. But of course, then Australia’s political upheaval, as we saw multiple prime ministers in the last ten years meant a lot of change. And they could not sustain that momentum despite the intent.’

‘In 2020 COVID happened. And the whole narrative had changed. All the aspirations, all the data, all the goals that were set didn’t mean much because of the huge shift in the global and national economic landscapes post-2020.’

And yet it was during this time that the momentum came back for Australia and India. In June 2020, Scott Morrison and Narendra Modi held a virtual summit during which they elevated the bilateral partnership to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP).

‘Australia’s economic exposure, and vulnerability to China was heightened during the pandemic requiring Australia to diversify its economic risks – to build its economic resilience, economic security and protect its sovereignty. The trade deal was a categorical reflection of Australia’s ambition to build an engaging economic relationship with the world’s fastest-growing economy. For naysayers, the signing of the interim trade deal (AI-ECTA) was a lesson in ‘strategic patience’ and ‘opportune timing’, a statement on the convergence of aspirations for the relationship, and the new geo-strategic and economic ambitions.’

In 2022, the two nations signed the AI-ECTA. The signing of AI-ECTA seeks to grow the bilateral trade from the current $27.5 billion to $45 billion in the next five years, and on to $100 billion by 2030. All of this is with the intent to raise India to one of Australia’s top three export markets by 2035 and the third-largest destination in Asia for outward Australian investment.

‘AI-ECTA eliminates tariffs on more than 85 per cent of Australian goods exports to India (valued at more than $14.8 billion a year), and 96 per cent of Indian goods imports entering Australia.  So now we have widened the tenets of our partnership.’

While the work on the trade agreements is ongoing, with the current government continuing the focus, Natasha says what is really going to drive its success will be the elevation of the interest and involvement of Australian corporates in the story.

‘India has many suitors today. You really must stand out. You really must be that differentiator to get a real hold on the economy. We need to understand what our strengths are, we need to canvas our capacity and our unique competitive advantages across sectors. And that’s where I feel that Australian corporates need to invest more time. They still do not understand the potential of the Indian market. The landscape of the economy is constantly evolving, and we’re increasingly facing new disruptions which are inherently complex. This means that we need a new lens, new tools and new methods to solve our challenges’

‘Beyond the scale, rising aspirations, increasing demand, young demographics, growing digitalised economy, India is the fastest growing large economy, the third largest economy globally by purchasing power parity. You’re looking at 25% of the global workforce over the next decade coming from India. You’re looking at a USD 1 Trillion digital economy by 2026, with 900 million active internet users, and the highest global fintech adoption rate. 7 of 36 edtech unicorns are Indian. The e-commerce market is expected to reach USD 325 billion by 2030. It is the fastest growing startup ecosystem.’

But according to Natasha, the Australian business sector’s understanding of the changing New India, is still below par. She does not see that kind of interest or awareness of the Indian market that would elevate the bilateral economic engagement effectively and in real-time.

‘I’m also a UN Women fellow at the University of Sydney. When we discuss case studies of US, European or Australian companies, I see merit in bringing India into those conversations – the only way to demystify cultural complexity is through cultural intelligence.’

‘The dynamic pace, scale, depth and breadth of the Asian market, changes so quickly that if you are not really in tune with it, the data reverses itself every three months. If you’re really anchoring your understanding of the Indian economy based on something that you experienced even five years ago, it’s a disaster. You are way off track. And I think that’s where we really need to do a lot of work. Business literacy on the economic opportunity that the region presents is lacking.’

In 2022 Newland Global came out with a compendium of success stories of Australian companies in India and Indian companies in Australia. ‘Many Australian companies are reluctant to explore the opportunities presented by the Indian market because they put it in the too hard basket. And this is based on perceptions from decades ago. In this compendium we showcase the success that some key Australian companies are having in the Indian market. These case studies expose companies to real business experiences, opportunities, dilemmas, and decisions. It educates companies to consider the broader organisational, industry, and societal context, cultivating the capacity for critical analysis, judgment, decision-making, and action as they explore, enter, and expand in these markets.’

‘Geo-strategic and geo-economic realities have changed. The Indo-Pacific is emerging as a new pivot to power, driven by common interests and converging ethos of strategic powers who have their own set of influences and ambitions, with a desire for rules-based order. Australia and India are situated in the most dynamic region of the Indo–Pacific that is the centre of economic and strategic gravity today. The opportunity is immense.’

Natasha was the 2022 Chief Executive Women Scholar for Governance Institute of Australia’s Executive Director Course.

‘When you look at Australian boards, how many of our board members have Asian expertise? Especially at a time when the opportunity is at its peak and when you should be talking about diversifying in that market. If you do not have that kind of insight on your board, you will never be ready to make a call for your company to enter that market. So, I think my problem and my concern is that despite understanding the relevance of it, we’re still not ready, We’re still not open. We are still in our cocoons. We see the incentive, but we don’t explore the opportunity.

This was one of the reasons why Natasha wanted to do the Governance Institute’s Effective Director Course. To equip herself with the skills and understanding of Australian boards and board complexity. Acquiring the skills that would enable her to understand and advise boards, where she could bring her expertise and experience to bear.

‘I’m very grateful for that opportunity and the experience of the Effective Director Course was marvelous. It was a very experienced cohort around the table with very interesting insights and experience across different boards.’

‘As businesses continue to expand their global reach, having a workforce and leadership that understands the significance and nuances of different regions, cultures, and markets is invaluable. There is a need for Asia-literate directors who bring new thinking and perspectives. I see it as an opportunity for boards. There is a need for diverse boardrooms with an understanding of the broader geopolitical landscape, economic and social system needs. Having a strong foundation in governance principles is integral to effective leadership skills and better decision-making, an invaluable learning from EDC.’


Natasha Jha-Bhaskar is part of the organising team for the Bilateral Roundtable that will be held on the sidelines of the International Governance Leadership Conference.

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