On the eve of Republic Day 2021, India declared Japan’s former prime minister, Abe Shinzo, as one of the recipients of the year’s Padma Vibhushan award for his exceptional service in the field of public affairs. The Padma Vibhushan is the second-highest civilian award of the Republic of India (following the Bharat Ratna) and was instituted on January 2, 1954.
India’s 72nd Republic Day was observed on January 26, 2021. The annual event honors the date the country was declared a sovereign republic and on which the Constitution of India came into effect in 1950.
Awarded for “exceptional and distinguished service” without distinction of race, occupation, position, or sex, the Padma Vibhushan was reclassified on January 15, 1955 into three different awards: the Padma Vibhushan, the highest of the three [Pahela Varg / Class I] followed by the Padma Bhushan and the Padma Shri. The Padma Vibhushan is observed with a centrally located lotus flower imprinted with the text ‘Padma’ written in Devanagari script, and the text ‘Vibhushan’ placed below the lotus. On the reverse side of the medal is the platinum Emblem of India placed at the center with the national motto of India, ‘Satyameva Jayate’ (Truth alone triumphs) inscribed in the Devanagari script.
Why Shinzo Abe?
When former Prime Minister Abe penned his book Utsukushii kuni e (美しい国へ, Bungei Shunju, in Japanese) in 2006, (Towards a Beautiful Country: My Vision for Japan, Vertical Inc., in English, 2007), he publicly advocated the concept of a “broader Asia” that constitutes nations in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Most noticeably, the book campaigned in favor of strengthening ties with India. Abe appeared to have anticipated Asia’s geo-strategic future exclusively through the prism of political realism, and rightly so, as the past decade has proven to establish.
The concept of a broader Asia has transcending geographical boundaries, with the merging of the Pacific and Indian Oceans becoming far more evident than ever. In order to catch up with this reality, Abe referred to Japan as undergoing “The Discovery of India”—implying rediscovering India as a partner and a friend. His perspective foresaw the renewed focus of India’s active engagement in the region within the ambit of its “Act East” policy and complemented Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy.
Abe’s bid to forge this vision began during his first term as Prime Minister, when he addressed the Indian Parliament in August 2007. The most famous authored work of Mughal prince Dara Shikoh, the book Majma-ul-Bahrain (The Confluence of the Two Seas published in 1655) became the inspiration, foundation and title of Abe’s speech and vision for Indo-Japanese relations—that of nurturing an open and transparent Indo-Pacific maritime zone as part of a broader Asia.
In fact, the “Confluence of the Two Seas” speech also underscored the pivotal advisory role played by then Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary, Nobukatsu Kanehara, and special Cabinet Advisor, Tomohiko Taniguchi.
India was the First Country to Accept ODA from Japan Post World War II.
Abe’s connections with India go back decades. India and Japan established diplomatic relations in April 1952, and the decade witnessed then Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi (Abe’s maternal grandfather) becoming the first PM of Japan to visit India in May 1957. India’s then prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, introduced Kishi at a public reception, saying, “This is the Prime Minister of Japan, a country I hold in the greatest esteem.” It was rare in the aftermath of the Second World War for the Japanese PM to be felicitated at a public rally.
Decades later, in a public speech in New Delhi in 2011, Abe recalled how deeply Nehru’s gesture had touched his grandfather, stating: “As a young boy seated on his knee, I would hear him telling me that Prime Minister Nehru introduced him to the biggest audience he had ever seen in his lifetime, of a hundred thousand people. He told me that it was India that came forward before any other country to accept the ODA Japan wanted to extend as a proud member of the international community. For all that, he remained deeply thankful throughout his life.”
In the given reference, it would only be reasonable to argue that, while evaluating the various determinants in foreign policymaking, perhaps it is individuals and personalities who could end up having the most profound impact on outcomes.
Abe envisioned and operationalized what was termed “…the dawn of a new era in India-Japan relations”. The decisional latitude and output of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were very much on display. The resultant policy announcements between Tokyo and New Delhi are manifestations of the same, showcasing the diversity and range of India and Japan’s vibrant cultures and their confluence.
Author: Dr. Monika Chansoria
Dr. Monika Chansoria is a Senior Fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA) in Tokyo. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of The Japan Institute of International Affairs or any other organization with which the author is affiliated. She tweets @MonikaChansoria. Find other articles by Dr. Chansoria here on JAPAN Forward.