It is said that 'India grows at night while the government is asleep'. The message is that the economy would grow faster if government got out of the way.

This phrase was adapted by Professor Amitabh Mattoo – a living embodiment of efforts to improve Australia-India relations – in opening the Australia-India Roundtable hosted by the Lowy Institute and Australia India Institute in Melbourne last week. Can the Australia-India relationship grow if governments are not actively involved?

Certainly a huge amount is being done outside government: by the private sector, in education and through people-to-people contact. Minister for Trade and Finance Andrew Robb outlined how the private sector will be at the centre of India-Australia ties and identified mutual economic benefit as the key driver for the relationship. On the people-to-people front, there are a number of initiatives in local government, tourism and the arts.

In education there are many partnership stories including efforts by the University of Melbourne and Monash University to engage with Indian counterparts. Australia is viewed favourably as a destination for international education in India. An Australia India Education Council works on issues such as skills, institutional collaboration, quality assurance and qualification recognition, and is looking at how to overcome barriers to collaboration. There are many areas of Australian expertise, such as public health and skills training, which link with key Indian needs.

So there is much that is and should be taking place outside government that will improve Australia-India relations. But there is still an important role for government support.

For example, as Andrew Robb explained, private sector growth is assisted by changes to Australian policy and regulation which can enhance the attractiveness of Australia as an investment destination for Indian businesses.

Existing educational and people-to-people efforts will be enhanced by the Government's signature New Colombo Plan which will enable Australian students to study and complete internships in Asia. Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop has announced that this is on track to be implemented in India in 2015.

In addition, diplomats create an enabling environment for all of these contacts. For example, the work of the diplomats at the Australian High Commission in Delhi was commended at the Roundtable as a textbook case of how perceptions of a country can be turned around by assiduous public diplomacy.

The centrepiece of Australian and Indian scientific and technological collaboration – the Australia-India Strategic Research Fund – relies on government support. Initiated by Prime Minister Howard and topped up by Prime Minister Rudd, the Fund has universal support from scientists in both countries. An Australia India Taskforce Report reported on seven successful years with the Fund supporting 84 projects and 20 workshops involving around 1500 researchers. Collaboration has included areas such as agriculture, biotechnology, solar energy, nanotechnology, biomedical devices and implants, IT security and marine ecosystems. Unfortunately the Fund is running out of money and needs to be topped up to continue at these levels.

The new model of diplomacy views foreign affairs as much more than government-to-government relations. But there is still a role for government in supporting initiatives that help grow important national relationships. Particularly in an area such as scientific research and development, which will drive innovation and growth for mutual benefit, there is an irreplaceable role for government; it cannot be asleep.

It would be a tragedy if government vacated the field where initiatives such as the Australia India Strategic Research Fund have had such a positive effect.

Photo by Flickr user Wonderlane.