Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe at the Sidi Saiyyed Mosque in Ahmedabad on Wednesday. (PTI)
New Delhi, Sept. 13: Prime Minister Narendra Modi undertook an 8km open jeep ride with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe through Ahmedabad today, waving to kimono-draped girls cheering for them in a spectacle from a bygone era three months before Gujarat goes to polls.
Called the "India cultural roadshow", the afternoon ride by the two leaders from the Ahmedabad airport to Sabarmati Ashram evoked memories of similar public drives by Indian leaders and visiting guests till the 1970s, when the practice was discontinued amid security fears.
In the case of Modi and Abe, a carefully selected and security-screened audience of school children lined the route, waving Indian and Japanese flags and blowing giant horns after the Indian Prime Minister greeted his guest at the airport.
Modi has hosted a key international leader for a bilateral state visit in Ahmedabad before - Chinese President Xi Jinping visited in September 2014, when the two countries were viewing their relationship with an optimism that has since evaporated.
But with Xi, the formal diplomatic meetings were held in New Delhi after Modi hosted the Chinese leader and his wife Peng Liyuan to a dinner and a swing-ride on the banks of the Sabarmati.
"Ahmedabad joins PM Narendra Modi to welcome esteemed guest," foreign ministry spokesperson Raveesh Kumar tweeted. "Energetic crowd greets PM Shinzo Abe all along the route from the airport."
Abe is visiting for an annual summit with India's Prime Minister and the two leaders will hold formal diplomatic talks at Gandhinagar's Mahatma Mandir convention centre tomorrow.
The Japanese Prime Minister is the second major international leader who Modi has hosted fully outside New Delhi. Modi held his annual summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Goa last October, months before that state went to polls. Gujarat is expected to go to polls in December. Russia and Japan are the only two countries with which India holds annual summits.
For India, Japan is a critical partner - a key foreign investor, a fellow aspirant to the UN Security Council membership and a military ally in the Indo-Pacific where the two countries share worries about an increasingly assertive China.
During their talks tomorrow, Modi and Abe are expected to reinforce their economic and security partnership, especially at a time Japan is concerned about North Korea's provocations through missile and nuclear tests. Both India and Japan are also trying to manoeuvre US President Donald Trump's administration towards adopting a firmer role against Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific.
But on Wednesday, Modi's goal appeared simpler: to underscore his global standing by broadcasting his genuine bonhomie with the Prime Minister of Japan, among the Indian leader's earliest international friends.
Modi embraced Abe as soon as the Japanese Prime Minister got off the plane at the Ahmedabad airport. Abe, dressed at the time in a formal suit, changed into a kurta and pyjama, and donned a Nehru jacket - or a Modi jacket, as some now refer to it - for the jeep ride through Ahmedabad.
Followed by mobile jammers that block all telecom signals in their range and flanked by security personnel, the two Prime Ministers and Abe's wife Akie waved to the audience lined along their route to Sabarmati Ashram.
There, Modi and the Abes posed for cameras with Mahatma Gandhi's spinning wheel, before the Japanese couple retired to their hotel briefly.
An hour later, they joined Modi at the Sidi Saiyyed Mosque, a 16th century monument famous for its intricately carved stone latticework windows. Overlooking the mosque sits the city's popular Agashiye restaurant, where Modi hosted the Abes to a pure vegetarian Gujarati dinner.