Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Indian PM Narendra Modi on the Shinkansen bullet train in Japan. File photo: The Hindu

India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in 1949 gifted to the Tokyo Zoo a baby elephant called “Indira”, named after his daughter, who later became prime minister Indira Gandhi.

Six decades later, in an example of history’s inter-linking strings, visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, the first Japanese PM to visit India and meet Nehru – made jumbo “gifts” of record infrastructure investments, including funding 81% of the US$17 billion project to build India’s first “bullet train” network.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, an admirer of Japan like Nehru, called the $13.77 billion loan at 0.1% interest as a “gift” from Japan. Pessimistic critics are already denouncing the bullet-train “gift” as a white elephant that will cause more problems than solutions for India’s much-needed transport upgrade.

The doomsayers could be wrong, with the high-speed-train project having potential to crack open new dimensions for employment and development in the crucial economic corridor across western India.

The first Japanese prime minister to visit India, Nobusuke Kishi (grandfather of current Japanese PM Shinzo Abe), and India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, in Delhi on May 28, 1957.

Since Japan’s first Shinkansen bullet train was launched in 1964, about 5.6 billion people have used the Tokaido Shinkansen linking Japan’s three largest metropolitan zones Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya. The Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train could do for India’s economy what the pioneering Tokaido Shinkansen did for Japan’s fast-track growth.

With the bullet-train “gift” and Japan’s investments in India soaring by 80% in the last financial year, economic pundits – like bewildered children expecting a few toys from a Japanese Santa but getting a truckload of goodies – are scratching their heads this week wondering if this is all too good to be true, and if and where’s the catch.

Misgivings, if any, might be over stipulations like Japanese companies being given 30% of the contract work for infrastructure projects like high-speed rail. But with India needing infrastructure funds, not many can complain if a chunk of Japanese taxpayer money is routed via India back home to quality Japanese corporations.

Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe in front of a Shinkansen train during their inspection at a bullet-train manufacturing plant in Kobe, Hyogo prefecture, on November 12, 2016. 

From its headquarters in the Nibancho Center Building in Chiyoda-ku, central Tokyo, the Japan International Cooperation Agency has overseen more than $15 billion in investments to India over the past five years, among the highest JICA funding in the world. It covers a range of development projects from water conservation to urban metro rail projects, public health and high-technology training.

Japan’s investments in India have crossed $25 billion – en route to a promised $35 billion by 2019 – even as India’s foreign-exchange reserves crossed $400 billion for the first time ever ($400.73 billion on September 8).

The giver-taker equations are becoming more balanced, as Japan needs India’s rapidly expanding markets, just as India seeks foreign investment for its mammoth infrastructure expansion (costing an estimated $5.15 trillion by 2030), to sustain status as one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

Sakura, a Japanese restaurant in New Delhi. Authentic Japanese-cuisine restaurants are appearing across Indian metros, such as  Kofuku in Mumbai, Fuji in Kolkata, and Bangalore’s Qi Le Meridien.

The closer, new India-Japanese ties cannot be seen only through a negative prism, as a counter to China’s bristling ambitions, or as a result of the expected insular, less open US markets in the next four or eight years, while the US economy undergoes repairs under its maverick but uniquely capable 45th president.

The recent high-profile infrastructure projects and trade agreements announced during Abe’s two-day visit to India last week only followed a trajectory launched a decade ago.

The Japan-India Strategic and Global Partnership declaration in Tokyo on December 15, 2006, between then Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh and Abe, laid the foundation for what promises to be one of the defining bilateral partnerships of the 21st century, a comprehensive growth platform between two of Asia’s leading democracies and major economies.

A proactive Modi has strongly pushed the partnership. He has already met with Abe 10 times since being elected prime minister in 2014, and has often expressed the wish for Japan-inspired developmental models for his home state of Gujarat and the whole country. And Abe has responded.

A known workaholic and systematic worker, Modi seems to have a natural affinity to Japan’s renowned culture of relentless hard work that built so many globally recognized brands.

“When I first visited Japan as chief minister of Gujarat, I had said that … I want to see a mini-Japan in Gujarat. Today, that dream has come true,” Modi told the India-Japan Business Leaders Forum during Abe’s visit. “I am happy to see so many friends from Japan happily living and doing business in Gujarat…. I am also happy to see that dedicated townships, clusters and institutions have come up to make the Japanese life and work experience better.”

A well-known Japanese proverb says “sono ko wo sirazareba sono ko wo miyo“, loosely translated as “when the character of a man is not clear to you, look at his friends”. Enigmatic Modi has often made clear that he sees in Japan a friend he admires, a trusted partner that India needs for mutual good.

Even good friends might have dark sides to deal with – but at the least, India needs a dose of the Japanese culture of disciplined hard work, while maybe Japan could do with a bit of the traditional subcontinental capacity to cope with the stress and hard knocks of life.

(Note to readers: From the link in first paragraph, enjoy the full 244-page Chicago Tribune newspaper edition of October 2, 1949.)

Raja Murthy

Raja Murthy is an independent journalist contributing to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990, and formerly for Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, Wisden.com etc. He shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.