“I believe Australia and India can help each other to stand increasingly taller on the world stage”: Raj Datta, the ex-councillor for Strathfield

“I believe Australia and India can help each other to stand increasingly taller on the world stage”: Raj Datta, the ex-councillor for Strathfield

He believes in having a Vision, Mission, Courage, Conviction and a burning aspiration for the community and for public good, Raj Datta, the ex-councillor for Strathfield talks about his inspiration, his journey in politics, his take on Indo-Aussie relation and much more in an exclusive interview with Indus Age.

By Nidhi Kumari

You’ve spent about three decades in Australia, how do you look at the time gone by?

The sun rises and sets, the seasons pass, the years go by; the wheels turn and the axle irremediably wears down. We are not given a choice of whether to participate in the process. If we choose to live a meaningful life that is a choice we make with our passion, values and ambition.  It has been a wonderful experience for me. My children were born here and got their world class education through the education system, a doctor and a dentist now. We had a much smaller community then. From the community perspective in 2002 as the Chair of the Deepavali festival committee of NSW I established the Deepavali Festival Committee of NSW (DFC) in collaboration with 31 different large community organisations of the Australians of Indian and Indian sub-continental heritage, temples and led the illumination of the Parliament House for celebration of Deepavali. That was the first time a Parliament House was illuminated in the western world for celebration of Deepavali. Many newspapers including Indus Age were stakeholders to this annual event. This annual event helped creating the profile of the Deepavali Festival that we see today. At that time I had to explain to various parliamentarians about what Deepavali was. A big change catalysed by the DFC.

Another great achievement was that following the leadership of Deepavali, celebration of other community and cultural events such as Eid, Budh Purnima, Vaishakhi, Hanuka etc commenced in the Parliament House NSW.  Deepavali was the first ever community event celebrated in the Parliament House of NSW.

I feel that through the celebration of Deepavali, DFC and our community added a new dimension to Multiculturalism in Australia.

You have served as a councillor, representing the Indian community with confidence. How did entering in politics happen?

Almost all my life I have been in ‘Community Service’ and I do not think I ever have thought that I have been in politics. All I have focused on is providing a service to the community, to the less fortunate and less privileged members of our community. To make small contributions to see one can aspire to become the best they can be.  Everything else is an extension of that ideology. As a councillor I have represented Australians from all heritages and as a councillor and the President of the DFC, I represented all Australians from Indian Sub-continental heritage in NSW.

As the Chair of the DFC I installed a plaque in the roof garden of the Parliament House of NSW and instituted Premier’s award in 2010. These are historical achievements of Australians of Indian and Indian subcontinental heritage . The Premier’s award was later discontinued by the new government.

It is the selfless collaboration of the 31 organisations and other stakeholders that made these historic achievements possible. Regardless of the common view, I believe that all in our communities can work together if led with a common vision for common good. 

How would you describe your experience as a councillor for Strathfield?

It has been an exceptional experience. As a councillor I have tried to emphasise on the commonalities that bind the residents of Strathfield together, the common threads of hope and aspirations such as better schools, less traffic congestion, a disliking for overdevelopment, more hospital beds, better transport etc. Through my dedication to community service for all community members regardless of their heritage, I have been able to bring satisfaction and happiness to many thousands of local residents. I stopped many over-developments, refurbished many parks. As a councillor leading the residents through a public petition campaign, I organised funding for rebuilding the Flemington station with modern facilities including lifts. These new station facilities have been particularly helpful to elderly and young mothers with children in prams. I also organised proper zoning of land so that ordinary residents could have a better quality of life despite threats from developers who wanted to destroy the environment and replace green space by constructing buildings. I also facilitated building of more open space and class rooms for students. There are many community members from all heritages who have been urging me to run for publically elected office again. This is a very humbling experience.

As a councillor I have felt concerned by the gap between the scope of politics our communities need for achieving monumental milestones, the vision that have inspired me and the smallness of the opportunities afforded. What is troubling is the gap between our challenges and the ease with which we get distracted by petty interests and trivial matters when the need of the hour is a working consensus to tackle bigger and broader issues. It is not just about rights and entitlements but also about duties and responsibilities.

It is also about the leadership that can inspire community members in believing that we can constantly remake ourselves to fulfil our broader dreams.

Having worked as a councillor, what do you think have been your major contributions and what are the areas where you think work needs to be done now?

I along with some of my like minded friends took the initiative to create a new organisation, called SAISH (Strathfield Australians of the Indian Sub-continental Heritage), and commenced celebration of Deepavali at the Strathfield council with the council as a partner for promoting the contribution of our community in NSW and Australia. Strathfield council is the only council that celebrates Deepavali as a partner as I understand.

I led refurbishment of many parks, installed gym and sports equipment including Table Tennis boards in various localities. I am also particularly proud of stopping over-development. I am also proud of being a strong and successful voice for the community for creating more classrooms, land and parks for growing schools in suburbs. I have also advocated for less traffic congestion, more hospital beds, more public transport such as light rail for Strathfield and better quality and environmentally friendly building design.

How do you look at the political scenario at present? And also the Indo-Aussie relation?

In 2008 DFC theme for celebration of Deepavali at the Parliament House was: India Australia, Natural partners.

This was to emphasise on the commonalities that exist between these two countries. I believe Australia and India can help each other to stand increasingly taller on the world stage.

Some of the commonalities are:

  • Both India and Australia are democratic societies.  English Language and love for cricket do not need any mention.
  • Both in India and Australia, there are strong and varied convictions and beliefs. In both countries, citizens argue and debate differences vigorously.  But once all is said and done, people come together as one people pledging allegiance to the notions that “All people are created equal, have equal rights and obligations.”
  • Both India and Australia are secular and multicultural countries with deep-rooted belief in the principles of ‘Unity in diversity’ and social tolerance.
  • Both have similar legal, financial and Government structures and both countries will continue to have increasingly common security-related and geopolitical interests as Indian Ocean littoral states.
  • Both countries are members of the Commonwealth, founder members of the United Nations and members of the Indian Ocean Rim-Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC), ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and dialogue partners with ASEAN.

Indo-Australia relationship is growing steadily. Given the commonalities between India and Australia I am sure the bilateral relationship between India and Australia will continue to grow.

In your view, what all difference you find in politics between Australia and India?

Politics is supposed to be a means to an end: to help the individual gain opportunity, to let him/her overcome limitations unfairly imposed by poverty, poor education, poor health, housing or welfare. This principle echoes and captures something deep within human nature: the desire to be free, to be the best one can be.

Both India and Australia are democratic countries, both are multicultural and both are governed by the Westminster system and dedicated to the above mentioned notion.  One fundamental difference is that in Australia we have two major political parties and in India we have many more political parties and of course the population in India is much larger and hence the issues and complexities are larger too. India also is not an island. India’s borders seem to be more porous. I think economic migration may have some adverse impact on Indian economy and political atmosphere.

Who is that one leader/politician you are most inspired by?

I have felt inspired by many leaders: Without Gough Whitlam we would not have the Medicare system or affordable higher education for all in Australia. These were great policy initiatives that have made Australia a more equal and equitable country where communities are socially mobile.

I have taken great inspiration from Neta ji Subhas Chandra Bose, Gandhi ji. I also felt greatly inspired by President Barack Obama. Most recently I have been inspired by the courage and conviction of Shri Modi ji, the current Prime Minister of India and like to believe that India’s best days are ahead of us under the leadership of Shri Modi ji. He certainly has taken some very bold initiatives and I am led to believe things are improving for better.

In your words, what makes a leader?

Vision, Mission, Courage, Conviction and a burning aspiration for the community, for public good.

What is it that you like to do when you are not working?

I cannot see myself as not working. Providing service to the community particularly to fellow community members who are less fortunate, have been in the blood of my family for generations. I am sure I will be able to make some contribution to my community and fellow community members until I am packed in a box.

Raj Datta-TraditionalLast but not the least, what is it that you would like to say to the aspiring politicians from the Indian community?

Think what you can do for your community and forget your self-interest. Politics is about giving. If you find pleasure in sacrifice and giving be in it, if not please do not waste time and resources.

Vision, Courage, Conviction, Sacrifice and hard work are the most basic staples for a politician. The best reward for a politician is satisfaction for contributing to Public progress and public good.

“We make a living by what we get and we build lives by what we give.”

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