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2007 to be India-Japan Friendship Year
What can you tell us of the contours of the economic partnership with Japan [Images]?
"We will have something substantial on that for you tomorrow."
Has the nuclear question come up in course of today's discussions?
"On that, we should have something for you tomorrow."
The questions came from the media. The answers, non-committal as they were, came from Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon, who on the evening of December 14 held a briefing along with Minister for Commerce and Industry Kamal Nath, National Security Advisor M K Narayanan and the Prime Minister's Principal Secretary T K A Nair.
That makes for a heavyweight grouping at the media table; yet, little of real substance was discussed.
"We are hopeful that Japan will take up the second phase of the Delhi [Images] Metro project, now that Phase I is complete."
"We are looking to put together a time bound program of economic cooperation."
"The idea of a new partnership between the two nations has found its moment."
You get the gist.
The impression gaining ground is that the day's activities were akin to a duck pond -- all calm and serene on the surface, but with a lot of frenetic paddling going on below the waterline.
And while 'economy' is the word being officially repeated ad infinitum as being the focus of this trip, the unstated sub-text increasingly is that India is hoping for some sort of official endorsement of its civilian nuclear ambitions from Japan.
D-Day is tomorrow. D-hour is 4.30 local time, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [Images] and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe [Images] will meet in summit at Kantei, the latter's official residence.
Simultaneously, the delegations of the two nations will meet in a separate session; the two meetings will be followed by the ceremonial signing of the Joint Statement.
It is this document the Indian delegation, now engaged in frenetic negotiations with the Japanese counterparts, are pinning their hopes on, and clearly, the nuclear question is increasingly coming front and centre of India's aspirations from the summit meet.
Stand by, then, for a statement that could potentially rival in importance the one signed by Prime Minister Singh with US President George W Bush [Images] on July 18, 2005.
Meanwhile, the surface of the duck pond remained calm on the first full day of the prime minister's state visit.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso called on Singh at his suite in the Four Seasons Hotel this morning at 11; he was followed by Akira Amari, Minister for Economy, Trade and Industry.
Aso is understood to have discussed mutual concerns in the fields of security and terrorism; Amari's interaction with the PM reportedly centered around modalities for a stepping-up of economic give and take between the two nations.
The afternoon was given over to ceremonial glad-handing: Prime Minister Abe officially welcomed Singh to Japan at his residence; Singh, accompanied by wife Gurcharan Kaur, then went to the Imperial Palace for an official audience with His Majesty Emperor Akihito, who has occupied the Chrysanthemum Throne since 1989.
Then came the prime minister's address to the joint session of the Diet, the Japanese Parliament -- an event that, like the curate's egg, was good in parts.
The turnout was flattering -- a large majority of the 480 members of the House of Representatives and the 242 members of the House of Councillors were present.
Prime Minister Singh's speech, of around 25 minutes, was interrupted about 11 times for applause, at times polite, at times fervent (Strangely, National Security Advisor Narayanan, at the media briefing later that evening, said there were 22 interruptions for applause; then repeated it for emphasis). The most pronounced, however, came at the beginning and at the very end.
At the beginning, when the prime minister folded his hands in a namaste, bowed his head and held the pose while the applause broke out; at the end, when he and his wife returned to the podium to repeat the namastes.
That Japan is a culturally sensitive nation is borne in on you within the first few minutes of your arrival here -- as you walk down the hotel corridor, you are greeted with so many bows that, to your jet-lagged imagination, it at times seems like you are in danger of becoming permanently hunch-backed from returning them.
A namaste, in return, brings beaming smiles and even more pronounced bows. It was a pity, then, that the heavyweight Indian delegation, which entered the Diet a few minutes before the prime minister, merely walked in, seemingly oblivious of the applause, and took their seats without even token concession to such cultural niceties.
The parts of the PM's speech that went down well with the assembled Parliamentarians -- and Prime Minister Abe, who was seated in the front row -- was when he acknowledged Japan's help in putting India's economy back on its feet after the crippling crisis of 1991.
Also going down big was Singh's reference to the peace treaty India signed with Japan in 1952, in the process waiving all war claims. "The principled judgment of Justice Radha Binod Pal after the war (WWII) is remembered even today in Japan," Singh said, to enormous applause.
Japan has always been conscious of its role in the great War, and of how the world perceives that role. Clearly, Singh's words struck a very vibrant chord.
Singh drew applause, too, when he spelt out the nature of India's economic growth, of the possibilities of Indo-Japanese cooperation on the economic front, and said the idea of a renewed partnership between the two nations had found its moment.
Prime Minister Abe noticeably led the applause on that occasion.
The PM drew laughter and applause, too, when in a lighter vein he spoke of cross-cultural pollination, and referred to a trend that had at the time gone relatively unreported in the Indian media.
In 1998, the Rajnikanth [Images] superhit Muthu, co-starring Meena, found a surprising -- and fervent -- audience in Japan when the movie was screened at a theatre in Roppongi Hills.
Repeat audiences, mostly Japanese, took the film to their hearts; Rajnikanth was christened the Odori Maharaja (Dancing Maharaja), and a group of Japanese fans travelled all the way to Chennai to meet their new found idol.
So huge is the Rajnikanth cult here that plans are on to release his upcoming starrer, Shivaji, helmed by director Shankar, here in Tokyo on the same day it hits the marquee in Tamil Nadu.
"I am delighted to hear of the popularity of Odori Maharaja among young people here," Prime Minister Singh told the Diet. "Our children were delighted to see your own Odori Asimo, the dancing robot. I believe the number of Indian restaurants in Japan has increased phenomenally. And I assure you that sushi and tempura are becoming popular in India."
The repeated ovation those lines drew underlined a truism of international relations -- cultural connects cut deeper than diplomatic engagement.
An interesting moment came when the prime minister briefly touched on nuclear energy. After seeking Japan's support on the nuclear energy front in ambiguous words ("We seek Japan's support in helping put in place innovative and forward-looking approaches of the international community to make this possible"), Singh departed from prepared text when he said India was fully committed to universal nuclear disarmament.
The applause, again, was noticeably fervent; in the press box, eyebrows went up at this dramatic departure from text.
Menon later told the media that the prime minister was merely elaborating on a thought he has expressed before; one that was, Menon said, consistent with the thoughts expressed in his speech.
Clearly, Singh was playing a tune Japan loves -- the idea of global disarmament, of which Japan, the only nation to have experienced the devastation of nuclear weapons, has been a vocal proponent.
The inexplicable bit came midway. Prefacing with the statement that trade and investment ties between India and Japan are currently well below potential, Dr Singh said, "By contrast, India's trade with both China and Korea is booming and grew last year at around 40 per cent with both countries.
"China's trade with India is nearly three times India's trade with Japan, and Korea's trade with India is almost equal to Japan's trade with India ."
It is possible that Singh deliberately introduced the comparison, to underline what could be possible; the deafening silence that enveloped the Diet during those moments when China was invoked twice in a single breath however was telling.
The speech before the Diet done, Singh segued into a meeting with leading Indian industrialists based in Japan, with the intent reportedly of finding out what problems they faced and what, if anything, the government of India could do to help resolve them.
Interestingly, business heads appear to believe the best thing the government could do was to leave them be. That feeling was repeatedly expressed, later that evening, by various members of the Indian business delegation that has arrived in Japan to coincide with Prime Minister Singh's state visit, and who had gathered at the Four Seasons Hotel to witness the official launch of 2007 as India Japan Friendship Year (curiously, it is also India China Friendship Year).
The businessmen were reluctant to put their thoughts on record; the only one who did was Amit Gupta, Chief Executive Officer of the S Chand Group of Companies.
"The problem is," Gupta told rediff.com, "that embassies and consulates take on themselves the responsibility of furthering business ties, and that is something they are not equipped to do."
"Because they are staffed by people on four-year rotation basis. It takes a bureaucrat a good year or two to settle in to a new posting and understand the local nuances; by the time he is informed enough to push business initiatives along, it is time for him to leave and for someone new to take over."
The solution, Gupta says, is to allow Indian trade bodies to open offices in the embassies and consulates, and to assume the responsibility of pushing business interests.
"A representative of a trade body, in that role, will remain focused on trade and commerce, and there will be continuity in the efforts," said Gupta. "Ministers, like Kamal Nath for instance, are aware and even sympathetic to this need -- but then, our bureaucracy takes time to change."
Dr Singh, meanwhile, closed out the day by launching Friendship Year 2007, alongside his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe, with Mrs Abe and various members of the Diet among the invited guests.
PM Abe, responding to Singh, gave the Indian delegation much to smile about when he said the visit of the Indian prime minister had reinforced his conviction that the two nations should nurture their relationship, "which I believe will be the most important bilateral relationship in the world."
Following that, the prime minister returned to his suite; the rest of his evening will be taken up in discussions with members of his delegation, aimed at fine-tuning the early draft of the Joint Statement that will highlight tomorrow's activities.
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