Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe: New order in confluence of Two Seas

By Somindu.S.

Ahmedabad, 25 November 2012

“The changes now beginning to take place between India and Japan are those that truly have no precedent.” On August 22, 2007, these words were echoing in the central hall of India’s Parliament. Shinzo Abe then Prime minister went on further, quoting Swami Vivekanand, and aptly titled his speech as confluence of two Seas. This was glimpse to his passion for India and strong Indo-Japan relations. Back home, it is well known fact that Narendra Modi has many admirers outside India too. Many people also know the Lee Kwan Yu the legendary PM of Singapore is very fond of Modi and keeps track of his growth. What is not known is Modi’s love for Japan and mutual respect. In the backdrop of Indo-Japan relations, this article is an attempt to see Abe and Modi who both have common vision of having strong Indo-Japan ties for Better world.

As they say coming events cast their shadows, their meeting this year in Japan, Abe’s elevation to leader of his party (LDP) and both leaders facing election in December, a lot is riding on their victories for unprecedented path for both countries. Let me take you to journey so far.. 

Flashback 2006: Ascent of Assertive Young leader

After resounding second victory, PM Junichiro Koizumi had promised he will quit politics as his purpose is served. Out of the four possible successors, Shinzo Abe was chosen. Koizumi went in oblivion closer to the word SANYAS we use in Indian context, leaving his prodigy to guide the nation further.

Coming from a Mori Fraction, Abe had solid backing internally as well as mountain of legacy left by Koizumi. Abe as Chinese media likes to call him was considered “The HAWK”. His tough stance during North Korea Negotiations and his assertive stance on China’s hegemony were causing some uncomforting to traditional Japanese politicians who believe in status quo or to be blunt live like Ostrich. Common people remember him as someone who convincingly dealt with North Koreans. I will come to this point in different way later.

To differentiate in multi-polar world, India was high on his radar. Mori and Vajpayee confirmed that they are the strategic partners for future way back in 2000. Till then the pro-china (read Anti-India) fraction led by Hahsimoto had done enough damage to Indo-Japan relationship post pokhran. Abe on the other hand was getting restless by increasing bullying by China and wanted to assert Japan’s position. India’s democracy and affectionate feeling towards Japan made him see hope.

When he took over as PM, he seriously got into business. Till then, whenever India was spoken for non-economic reasons in Japan, people related it to Buddhism. Abe took a more contemporary view which both citizens could connect easily. He found Vivekanad, Okakura,, Tagore and Pal as metaphor. As a grandson of Kishii one of the earliest PM of post war Japan, he had fond memories of India gifting Elephant and thus giving healing touch. All of these were reflected in his most famous Speech.

Year 2007: Vibrancy of Gujarat and Japan’s Quest for India

When Abe was trying to put his footprints on Japanese leadership, there was another leader emerging in India. In 2007 January, Bloomberg Terminals of world were flashing one event from India. The Vibrant Gujarat Global Investor Summit (VGGIS). For the starters, Bloomberg terminals are the lifeline for someone working in hardcore Banking and Investment Banking. Bankers live and die by them. India’s undoubted advent was not missed by global money and Tokyo being one of the major hubs of finance was equally alert.

When whoswho of Indian Industry were lining up to share their thoughts in mini-davos like VGGIS, world was taking notice of this growth engine from India. The biggest endorsement came from Tatas with his “You are stupid if you are not in Gujarat “comments. Every banker took note of one man though. Narendra Modi.

Japan not far behind global trends, was also warming up to India. The investment banks were the first to take advantage of India story. Any Mutual Fund focusing on India will be oversubscribed by many times as many new positive stories had turned Mr and Mrs Watanabes to Indo Fund.

With Suzuki being market leader slowly they discovered that after all India is not that alien market for them. But at political leadership level they needed something big or bigger than biggest, something path breaking that could be symbol of partnership.

Abe came up with vision of Indo-Japan relationship that could surpass even US or China. It was during his time that DMIC (see note below) got conceptualized with full vigor. And if I borrow Abe’s words in 2007, it shows his full intention: “Strong India is good for Japan and Strong Japan is good for India”. The growth rate of Japanese companies and investment (which in turn is helping Indian economy) since has never looked back.

Importance of FootWork:

Just after the grand success of VGGIS in 2007, Modi decided to visit Japan, it was his first serious attempt to woo FDI and he chose the right spot to begin this journey. Interestingly Abe was Modi’s first call. Abe was a bit tired by internal politics and loads of legacy not to mention his health problems. But he was very much looking forward to his India trip few months later. He found Namo’s visit probably as a very good omen. They spent a good time. Even though it was more of Aisastu (introduction) they promised to meet again. It was just the beginning.

In our school, a cricket coach used to stress the importance of Footwork. He would say Cricket is played with whole body but the thing that keeps you on your crease or gets you runs is your feet. Reach to the ball if you want to hit six, run hard if you want to score on difficult wicket. Every run counts and you have your legs to thank it for.

When Abe made his historic visit to India in August 2007, he could not visit Gujarat as protocol sensitive Japanese diplomats wanted to stick to UPA terretory. Modi again did something unthinkable. Considering the sensitivity of his guest, rather than
feeling offended (like traditional politicians), he ran all the way to Delhi and spent amicable time with Abe. When understood in the backdrop of Indian polity, Abe must have realized the magnanimity. Probably this trait of Modi some may argue comes from his RSS background. But for Abe this must have been gratifying character. “On” is a very important word in Japanese culture with closest meaning as obligation in English, but it is much deeper than that. Abe must have felt “ON”. Nimble Feet Modi surely scored.

Later in December, Modi went on to win election defying all odds, where as Abe due to some colleague’s scandals and more importantly due to his ill health stepped down from the post of PM. As Abe went in background focusing on his health, Narendra Modi embraced Japan with both arms. The biggest positives of 2007 visit, was JETRO and Japaense Govt becoming country partner for VGGIS. Abe’s pet project DMIC also got maximum boost in Gujarat.

Fast forward 2012,

Since then there is a surge in the relations between India-Japan especially in economic terms. Japan has almost zeroed down on two locations. (1) TamilNadu and (2) Gujarat. While the locational advantage is in favor of TamilNadu, the leadership of future and robust infrastructure opportunity is very much in favor of Gujarat. It all started in early 2012, where Japanese media started calling Namo the definite choice of future PM. The visit to Japan as I wrote in my previous article was carefully planned by Ambassador Saeki himself. Giving Modi a cabinet rank invitation and there was omni-present Red-carpet for him.

Modi did something very interesting again this time. Even though Abe was getting healthier and much better shape than five years ago, he was in political wilderness not even at important position in his own party LDP. Normally diplomats would not advise meetings. But Modi not only met him, both discussed for long on Indo-Japan relations as concerned friends would catch-up on common goal. This was Modi’s way of conveying he cares for friends.

September, 2012 surprisingly Abe came to lime light again from exile and won the mandate to head LDP again. Modi must have been happy man seeing his friend get back thick in action.

In Japan, present PM Noda’s position is very weak and after few years of Minshuto (DPJ), there is a growing consensus in favour of LDP again. As a leader of LDP, Abe is likely to be chosen as PM and will get his focus on the Japan’s geo political position and cultivating old friends again. It surely augurs well for India.

The Brain Behind Team Abe?

As I mentioned earlier, Abe got maximum attention during North Korea crisis. There was another gentleman, a quite but immensely capable diplomat who was also deeply involved in making the trip to North Korea possibility and obviously worked quite closely with Abe. His name is Saeki. The same Blue-Ribbon Diplomat who till recently was posted to India as ambassador. During his tenure, things changed dramatically. (read Saying yokoso for some more details)

The non-functioning of UPA and indifferent TamilNadu politicians, ambassador Saeki had seen it all and still found way to work. Having a good look at all the so called leader India had to offer, he got to meet Modi after 13 months of his tenure. It must have felt like oasis to him. That a leader from India could also be so sensible, Amb Saeki was more in awe as he interacted more with Modi and his administration. Thus in the auspicious 60th year of establishing diplomatic relations between India and Japan, he threw all his weight behind Modi and personally looked into the minutest details of his Japan trip itinerary. The trip was truly historical in many senses. Japan had just discovered the leader to whom they can believe in as they look forward to building new relationship.

Now Saeki is back in Tokyo steering Japan’s diplomacy in the messy matrix of China, Korea, USA and Japan. I am sure Abe will lean more on him and his India experience as Japan looks to new strategy of aligning ASEAN-India Block. Narendra Modi surely would be playing big on Saeki’s mind.

Can a month be so important in history?

This December, both the leaders will face the ultimate democratic challenge. Abe’s election is on 16th and probably by evening we will know results. Modi will have to wait for Diwali on 20th December. If both of them get through as widely perceived, it will surely augur well for both India and Japan. While Modi will still be CM, but reason for him taking over higher role may only increase. Whatever the outcome, in global diplomacy where histories are created, it is the friendship that matters.

In this context I was saddened by the fact that our PM cancelled visit to Japan. Official reason given is there is no parliament in place. I do hope the decision was taken keeping his ill health in mind rather than official reason given. Global diplomacy and friendship should survive such short-term blips. He could have still gone and assured people of Japan of India’s friendship. India was in dire state when Japan had sent a helping hand to save us from bankruptcy in 1991. MMS was then the FM. He still has high regards for Japan and I think its Mutual. But if there was any time in the current history of Japan, they needed India most, it was now. A lesson he should have learned from Modi. You may forgive your enemies, but never forget your friend. This is true Asian values that bind us all. Cheers to Indo-Japan relationship.

For Abe’s pet project DMIC, 37% of projects have found Vibrant Gujarat a preferred destination. And when he is looking for new vision for Indo-Japan ties, I am sure he will have enough idea on who is the perfect foil from India.

I for one wish a great future to Indo-Japan relationship.