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From Bose to Maruti, a friendship fostered

Japan has the third highest GDP in the world at about US $4.4 trillion. That’s four times more than India’s.

It has a population of 128 million that enjoys a per capita income of $37,000. That’s 37 times more than India’s.

It is pollution-free, chooses not to raise an army and has a delicate sense of design and aesthetics.

It also has a brutal World War II history.

Cold statistics give a glimpse of the gap between India the elephant and Japan the winningest derby horse, but the odd couple had ticked despite occasional hiccups.

Aftab Seth, a retired diplomat and former ambassador to Japan, tried to explain the oddities of India-Japan relations at the Think series lecture, presented by The Bengal Chamber in association with The Telegraph, last week.

The Rhodes scholar with a PhD from Greece harked back to events that unfolded 1,500 years ago when Indian thoughts and Buddhism gained roots in Japan. Cutting back to modern times, he said: “Tagore visited the country five times and Swami Vivekananda travelled to Japan on his way to Chicago. Rashbehari Bose, accused of trying to kill Lord Hardinge, was given refuge in Japan and Subhas Chandra Bose’s INA was assisted by a group of young soldiers from Japan. At the International Military Tribunal, Justice Radhabinod Pal gave his dissenting judgment in favour of Japan. The Boses and Pal are revered at the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo.”

Seth showed how the foundations were reinforced when India helped Japan with iron ore to rebuild its steel industry after the crippling World War. Japan returned the favour. India was the first country to receive the Japanese Overseas Development Aid (ODA) after the Korean conflict.

The cold war distanced the two friends for a while, but “during the worst forex crisis of India, Prime Minister Hashimoto bailed India out with a loan”, Seth said.

India’s May 1998 nuclear test at Pokhran ruffled Japanese feathers, though. “They felt we let them down and they cut all fresh ODA to us.”

When the boat was rocking post-Pokhran, a band of Indonesian pirates rubbed the frost off the Indo-Japan ties. Indian navy rescued the Japanese crew, left adrift in the high seas in a lifeboat without food or water, after the pirates hijacked their ship.

Soon after, then finance minister Jaswant Singh was invited to Japan in November 1999. “Close on the heels came (Bill) Clinton’s five-day love fest in India and four months later Yoshiro Mori came and announced global partnership for the 21st century with (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee. This was a comprehensive security dialogue between India and Japan,” Seth said.

“It was Osama Suzuki who came to India in the ’80s even before the economic liberalisation and, in a leap of faith, set up shop with a public sector company, thus forming the Maruti Suzuki India Ltd…. This was pioneering coming at a time when it did,” he added.

Seth hoped that the recent visits of Emperor Akihito and Queen Michiko and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would bolster ties between the two countries. “Indo-Japan ties are like a kite’s string, invisible in the sky but visible on the finger,” he signed off.