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 India’s 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. Abe’s 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 Tokyo’s 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 China’s rise and the West’s 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 Modi’s foreign policy has been shaped both by the West’s, 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 Asia’s 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 Abe’s combination of investing in domestic economic capability and external strategic capacity for nation building. Modi’s domestic policy focus, drawing from Gujarat’s experience, has been on building India’s economic capability. His political rhetoric focuses on the need to revitalise a moribund economy, which is exactly how Abe came