The world of Narendra Abe

New Delhi | Updated: Feb 27 2014, 23:41pm hrs
At the tail end of a question-answer session following a lecture in Singapore, an East Asian member of the audience asked me if I could enlighten him on what Indias foreign policy was likely to be in a Narendra Modi government. Pressed for time, and not prepared for the question, I offered a telegraphic reply. Modi, I told him, would be the Shinzo Abe of India. Many heads nodded in the audience, as if my reply was crystal clear.

Modi is not an Abe in terms of his inheritance. Abes biography reads more like that of Rahul Gandhi. The grandson of a former prime minister, Abe is related to the Japanese emperor. He is the insider among Tokyos power elite. Modi is the outsider in the Delhi darbar. But, Modi would seek to define his foreign policy in more nationalist terms, as Abe has tried to, partly as a way of reviving the national mood in a dispirited country.

Modi represents a brand of Asian nationalism kindled by Chinas rise and the Wests part-confused, part-duplicitous response. Asian nations preparing themselves for the new power balances of the 21st century have to chart their own course, dealing with a rising China and a West preoccupied with its economic woes.

It is noteworthy that the three countries that Modi has visited as chief minister have been China, Japan and Singapore. The Asian focus of Modis foreign policy has been shaped both by the Wests, especially the United States, treatment of him and, more importantly, the longstanding admiration of Asian nationalism within the wider Sangh Parivar. It is not often remembered in contemporary discourse that during the 1970s and 80s, the intellectual leadership of the Jana Sangh greatly admired Japan. As Asias first industrial nation, which was also the first Asian power to defeat a European one in over 300 years, Japan was a great source of inspiration for Indian leaders including Swami Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru.

But it is not just history, technology and investible capital that makes Japan a country to draw inspiration from. Modi seems to recognise the value of Abes combination of investing in domestic economic capability and external strategic capacity for nation building. Modis domestic policy focus, drawing from Gujarats experience, has been on building Indias economic capability. His political rhetoric focuses on the need to revitalise a moribund economy, which is exactly how Abe came to power in a depressed and depressing Japan.

Not surprisingly, Modis first major foreign policy statement in the run up to the general elections of 2014 has also focused on Chinas new assertiveness. However, as journalist Ashok Malik has observed, Modi would understand that India has to, for some time to come, maintain a balanced relationship with China, pushing back in response to its assertiveness but cooperating with it to ensure the continuity of Asias rise. In essence, Modis policy towards China is unlikely to be very different from Prime Minister Manmohan Singhs, as Malik has also noted, though it will be articulated more emphatically than many in the Congress party and government were willing to.

While talking tough, Modi should be expected to do business with China. On his visit to Beijing in 2011, when China received him with the courtesy due to a head of government at a time when Western governments were refusing to even give him a visa, Modi invited Chinese companies to invest in India. He has often urged Indian business leaders to learn from China. He should be expected to pursue a balanced policy of defending Indias national interests at a bilateral level while working with China at the regional and global level.

It is also unlikely that Modis approach to the US would be any different from that of Singh. Recall the fact that during the entire debate on the India-US civil nuclear energy cooperation agreement, Modi adopted a more supportive posture than the BJPs national leadership was willing to. BJP leader L.K. Advanis trenchant opposition was defined by his desperation to dislodge the Manmohan Singh government and become prime minister. Those close to Modi within the BJP, like Arun Jaitley, adopted a more conciliatory stance on the nuclear deal. Just as the Congress was divided on the subject, so was the BJP.

While Modi should be expected to remain engaged with the US, it is up to the Obama administration to wake up and craft a more consistent and convincing India policy. The recent impasse in the bilateral relationship is a result of policy confusion both in New Delhi and Washington DC. Modis election may clear the air in Delhi, but it may further muddy the waters in Washington, unless President Barack Obama pays personal attention and seeks to revive the relationship.

Modi should, however, be expected to be forthright in his outreach to Japan. Not only did the Japanese also receive him as if he were a head of government when he visited Tokyo, but they have also put their money where their mouth is and are investing in Gujarat in a big way.

Modi, like three of his predecessors Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh should also be expected to give priority to Indias economic imperatives in crafting his foreign policy. His election campaign has focused on the need to step up economic growth, holding Gujarat as an example for India. His 5 T focus on talent, tourism, technology, tradition and trade would suggest that mutually beneficial relations with countries that can contribute to these Ts, especially trade, technology and tourism, should be a priority. These elements should also define his neighbourhood policy, as well as stance towards other emerging economies.

In keeping with his nationalist posture, Modi should be expected to strengthen the relationship between defence and diplomacy. This would privilege the relationship with Israel and other major defence suppliers. It should also revive Indias engagement with Indian Ocean maritime diplomacy. Taken together, all these elements would suggest that the role model for Modi may well be Japans Shinzo Abe, whose singular focus has been on restoring to Japan its lost dynamism.

The writer is director for geo-economics and strategy, International Institute for Strategic Studies and honorary senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi