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Shinzo Abe in Gujarat: Narendra Modi turns bilateral meeting into political masterstroke for upcoming poll

Moving beyond the virtual world of smartphones and high definition TV screens, bullet trains could finally be a reality in India. After years of hype, the foundation stone for the high-speed rail connectivity between the two financial hubs of Ahmedabad and Mumbai was laid by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his visiting Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe at Gandhinagar’s Dandi Kutir.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe in Gandhinagar on Thursday. PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe in Gandhinagar on Thursday. PTI

Given its spectacularly ambitious deadline for the completion of the project, if it does actually get completed within the stipulated time, it would go all the way in determining the very thought process how a project should be laid and executed in the country. The project can be a model for other parts of the country on how modes of transport should be. The arrival of metro rail in Delhi and construction of new highways (beginning with the Golden Quadrilateral), both conceived and executed during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime are a case in point of that change.

But those who watched Thursday’s foundation laying ceremony, the speeches delivered thereafter and the warm reception given by Modi to his "close personal friend" Abe and his wife after they landed in Ahmedabad on Wednesday, would realise that the Japanese prime minister's visit to India and his Indian counterpart taking two full-day off to be with him means much more than mere signing of bilateral deals of strategic and commercial interests.

The optics and its sheer extravaganza are indicative that the landing of Japanese prime minister in Ahmedabad and Modi capitalising every moment of it, has special significance for the ruling BJP. More so because all this is happening in Modi’s home state of Gujarat, which is going to going to the poll in two months time.

Modi has taken the reception of a visiting dignitary with whom he shares a warm personal rapport to an entirely new level that India had never seen before. The interesting part was that the dress Abe and his wife wore were stitched by the same store in Ahmedabad which stitches Modi’s clothes.

The debate on the bullet train would go on in India between the protagonists and antagonists over its need, particularly at a time when so many train accidents have been happening due to the continuous use of old worn out tracks. That kind of debate is not new to the country for it comes up whenever a new project of this kind is conceived – why have metro, first correct DTC and bus transport, why have express highways first build state and district highways, why have computers when you have low literacy rate and so on. But that’s what should happen in any democratic country. The pattern of such debates suggests that socialist roots are still strong in public discourse.

That was perhaps the reason why Modi went at length to list benefits of the bullet train, which is expected to run in five years from now by 2022. The prime minister pointed out that Japan is also offering a soft loan worth Rs 88,000 crore repayable in 50 years with an interest rate of 0.1 percent. Modi kept on referring to Abe as his param, ananyay mitra (close personal friend) and indeed they are. Modi had built a relationship with him much before he became the prime minister, since the time he was Gujarat chief minister. "A good friend is beyond time and geographical boundaries and Japan has today shown that," Modi said.

What is interesting to note was Modi switching to Gujarati when he found his reference to Abe as his close friend evoked a relative lukewarm response from the audience. Few sentences in Gujarati asking them to give thunderous applause to friend Abe had the desired response. The crowd cheered lustily and gave a thunderous clapping. Through these sentences in Gujarati, he established his connect with the people in Gujarat. Nobody perhaps understands the value of symbolism better than him.

There is no doubt that Modi used the bilateral summit meet for domestic political purposes. No harm in that as long he is focused on larger national interest. The deals signed with Japan and the decision to cooperate on various international issues suggest that as the prime minister of India he has played his role well.

Modi used his own argument, at the beginning of his tenure as prime minister as to why all big events, multilateral and bilateral summit meets should be held in Delhi alone. India is a vast country and the visiting dignitaries should get a chance to see the vastness of India. Months after he became the prime minister he made a departure from established practice by welcoming a visiting head of state outside of Delhi. He received Chinese President Xi Jinping in Ahmedabad. Later he took the Japanese prime minister to Varanasi, his parliamentary constituency.

Abe's landing in Gujarat, staying there for two days and leaving India from there has definite political implications. His political rivals and critics are finding it hard to digest that Modi has smartly used Abe’s visit to his benefit and his party’s advantage in the poll bound state.

His rivals didn’t know how to react to his decision to take Japanese prime minister to the 16th century Siddi Saiyyed mosque in Ahmedabad and be his guide there. The move, which was full of symbolism, shows his outreach to the Muslim community and his messaging that he does not differentiate on the basis of religion while looking for heritage sites and national icons.

The bonhomie between Modi and Abe was such that the Japanese prime minister while speaking at the foundation laying ceremony of the bullet train project said the joint venture began two years ago. Like the Congress party, he too forgot that that project was envisaged in 2009 when Manmohan Singh was the prime minister of India.

Updated Date: Sep 15, 2017 06:37 AM

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