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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 38, September 13, 2014

India, Japan at the Global Crossroads

Saturday 13 September 2014, by Uttam Sen

Key diplomatic exchanges or matters of state are almost axiomatically obscured from the world. Reportage does not necessarily sharpen our flair for analysis or speculation. Yet it could provide the ineluctable reality, as much as the grist for a searching hypothesis. In that tentative vein, has Narendra Modi’s reported bonding with Shinzo Abe opened up a worldview that others have either not grasped, or are no longer inclined to dare, particularly when it is more immediately utilitarian than remote or far-fetched?

The two leaders have flown in the face of conventional wisdom in the past. Are they doing so another time? To take an example, heuris-tically again, wouldn’t a free-spirited person have beenprompted to reshuffle the pack, once Pakistan’s military brass decided to willfully escalate hostilities after the cessation of violence had been made a condition for talks, virtually taking Nawaz Sharif to task for failing to foist the Hurriyat on New Delhi? A legitimate principle developed into a provocation. General Pervez Musharraf asked an Indian television interviewer whether Modi was a Viceroy before whom Pakistan must kowtow. On the face of it, putting the finger on an alternative arrangement appeared the perfect silver bullet

Japan, or more specifically its Prime Minister, empathises with India (given Abe’s consistently fraternal references). India would be eyeing Sino-Japanese contention over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, with the Sino-Indian boundary dispute still looming large. The interesting part is that China provided a low-key welcome to the Japanese Emperor’s symbolic visit to India at the height of the quarrel. A similar visit to China in the nineties had foreshadowed colossal Japanese investment in Chinese infrastructural development. The current reciprocally beneficial Indo-Japanese dialogue was on the cards.

One of the biggest question-marks on Modi’s visit was whether the supposed strategic engage-ment with Japan would rile China. The Chinese Foreign Minister reacted with common sense when questioned on Modi’s remark on “expan-sionism” (in which the Prime Minister had not named names), saying he did not know whom it was directed at. Modi had inexplicitly lamented expansionist tendencies in reply to a question. The $ 35 billion in Japanese investment, several other projects, India’s possibilities in supplying a skilled workforce in years to come, Indo-Japanese closeness as a global gamechanger etc. had all cropped up and been alternately reiterated by Modi and Abe. But as a section of the Left in India wondered, was it consistent with the equally important initiative with China on BRICS? The future will tell, but Indian analysts and observers were suggesting “multi-lineality” in Sino-Indian relations, that is, both sides would pursue each other’s varied concerns, refusing to get hemmed in when they were incompatible. The Chinese state-run Global Times hearteningly explained in so many words soon after that Sino-Indian relations were past piecemeal dilution, though the tongue-in-cheek aside on the corresponding prospects of the Indo-Japanese equation was inescapable.

It bears recalling that all three Asian countries are somewhat grudging plural societies in the Western sense, India perhaps placing the highest liberal premium on its diversity. The movers and shakers in China’s top echelons have to contend with the People’s Liberation Army and Communist Party. The PLA is known to be hawkish on geopolitics and its Communist Party politically and economically conservative. Japan is riding the crest of a nationalism which had once encroached on Chinese sovereignty. But most policies of the Liberal Democratic Party, which Abe leads, are contested by its coalition partner, the New Komeito. Within the LDP itself, Abe’s rival, Shigeru Ishiba, is skeptical of his collective self-defence ideas.

Yet there are people in all three sensitive to constantly shifting paradigms and the need for “reform” rather than “realism” as IR termi-nology posits the predicament. Neither Chinese finance-dominated BRICS’ support for sustain-able development nor Japan’s quest to develop Asian prosperity are necessarily dyed-in-the-wool revanchism, though aspects of chau-vinism will inevitably be reflected in them (more “vikasvaad” than “ vistarvaad”). The answer to the triangular poser would lie in our ability to manage these contradictions with recognition of plurality within and without. The point well-taken is that we are increasingly internalising the terms of dominant Western discourse even while reclaiming some of our own ancient thought. By the same token, the problem on our western borders will continue indefinitely while our apparently one-dimensional neighbour goes for broke with the Army as its end-all and monist faith as its inevitable accessory. But time and the ingenuity of its people should be the healers.

This is not to undermine the immanence of civil society that already exists in and around the military. Yet, with the adjustments main-stream parties have had to make with extreme persuasions, and the Army’s crackdown on the Taliban in Waziristan, the latter probably inspires greater belief and confidence among the conventional middle class. There is some merit in New Delhi’s supposed preference to talk directly with the military for the moment.

But the piquant circumstance is that Sharif has got a lease of life from Parliament, which we should welcome while clutching at straws. The necessary masquerade of representative government will continue in some form or other. In parallel, the Kashmiri Hurriyat, which reflects assorted shades, will carry on insisting on its arrogated privilege of meeting Pakistani diplo-mats on Indian soil as a tradition previous governments had brooked. I had once ingenu-ously put it to an affable Kashmiri leader from Pakistan in Geneva in the mid-nineties that given conditions in the subcontinent his people could have a bigger say as a constituent of an Indian Government! He had replied equally trustfully that the baggage of history and procedure (rather than anything else!) made it infeasible.

A homespun authoritarianism is a fait accompli for people in “Azad” or Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. But niceties are discounted in the tactical confrontation that is on. The elements in a long drawn-out conflict under proxies of various kinds make confusion worse confounded. But a clear head would assume a dispassionate grasp of the rules of the game as they obtain, and some of our own limitations. There has to be a change of air with evolving geopolitics, and arguably development and greater participatory demo-cracy, possibly why India has been looking east in the interim, additionally in the hope of quid pro quos for the goods and services it can deliver, in a relatively democratic environment. Sharif’s spirited riposte to the armed forces through Parliament, where he enjoys a majority, bids fair to bring forward the day popularly elected institutions will take the initiative in governance.

However, for the present, the warrior-state’s resonance with like-minded institutions in other parts will endure (to include direct confron-tation with adversaries). The limited frame of reference should alarm public opinion wherever it exists. Widening it should increase our choices and facilitate decision-making at a very crucial stage.

The author is a Bengaluru-based journalist.