By Swapan Dasgupta
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mischievous aside in Tokyo about “secular” critics at home questioning his gift of the Bhagavad Gita to Emperor Akihito wasn’t out of place in Japan. His hugely successful five-day visit to Japan was mainly centred on the promotion of India as a manufacturing hub and interlocking the two countries in a larger strategic dialogue. However, what added an extra zing was the underlying convergence in the political approaches of Modi and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
It is instructive to recall that prior to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin emerging as the principal rogue leader of a ‘normal’ country—Syria, Iraq and the Caliphate are thought to be beyond the pale—that position had been occupied by Abe. Just as the entire liberal establishment of the West had agonised over the horrendous implications of an India under the ‘majoritarian’ Modi, they had earlier rung alarm bells over Abe’s supposed bid to rekindle militaristic Japanese nationalism.
In a quirky process of ideological realignment, the anti-Abe clamour was joined by China, a country that is otherwise careful to maintain its distance from the internal politics of other countries. It is no surprise that the state-controlled Chinese media has debunked the idea of an Indo-Japan ‘united front’ as “crazy fantasy generated by Tokyo’s anxiety of facing a rising Beijing.”
As someone who has been at the receiving end of cosmopolitan derision for insisting that a modern, indeed, global India has to be rooted in traditional values and cultures, and that social harmony necessitates national pride, Modi has reason to be sympathetic to Abe’s plight. The Japanese PM who got a resounding mandate on the promise to extricate Japan from a period of prolonged stagnation is also committed to reworking the political settlement imposed on Japan by the occupation forces after 1945. Why this right should be contested seven decades after the World War is bewildering.
Abe is seeking to reverse Japan’s constitutional commitment to pacifism by re-building a national army for the ‘self-defence’ of the islands. India is an important partner in this process as is Australia. Interestingly, an increasingly beleaguered US has shed its objections to Abe’s “active pacifism” because of its growing inability to undertake the global responsibilities it assumed during the Cold War. The only real elephant in the room is, quite predictably, China that nurtures a visceral distaste of anything remotely resembling Japanese self-assertion. Like the patronising Charles De Gaulle, Beijing would rather keep alive the stereotype of the Japanese as “transistor salesmen”.
The second feature of the Abe project has been painted—in language familiar to India’s chattering classes—as “divisive” and “polarising.” The post-war settlement, apart from disbanding the military, led to Japan’s defeated leadership accepting the downgrading of the Shinto faith and adopting a school curriculum that promoted collective self-flagellation for the sins of militarism and Emperor worship. As a nation, Japan appears to have accepted apologia as its national creed with, many believe, ominous consequences.
There are undeniably facets of Japan’s past that invite unease. But that is true for almost all countries without exception. However, what is unacceptable is that 69 years after the world’s greatest weapons of mass destruction were tested on the civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan is obliged to persist with a history written by the victors of that war. Western liberals have teamed up with China’s Red nationalists to question the right of Japan to honour the souls of those who died for the Emperor—then considered the personification of the nation. China stopped within an inch of severing diplomatic ties with Japan after former Prime Minister Koizumi made annual pilgrimages to the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo—a temple that blends national honour and faith.
Maybe Modi should have visited Yasukuni but not out of a desire to score a point against China. He would have paid tribute to those Japanese martyrs who also died for the freedom of India. He would have witnessed Japan’s tribute to the Indian judge who contested the principle of victors’ justice. Equally, and in the context of the proposed monument in Delhi, he would have imbibed the significance of crafting an inseparable link between a martyr’s memorial and the national ethos.
Sunday Times of India, September 7, 2014