Statesman and a gentleman, Shinzo Abe will be missed by both India and Japan

For the second time since 2007 last week Shinzo Abe walked away from power and resigned as PM on health grounds. Former Law minister Ashwani Kumar recalls his association with the Japanese statesman

Former Law Minister Ashwani Kumar (right) with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) who recently resigned
Former Law Minister Ashwani Kumar (right) with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) who recently resigned

Ashwani Kumar

The longest serving Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe resigned on August 28 for reasons of health. Suffering from ulcerative colitis for several years, he felt incapacitated to give his best at a time when Japan faces several challenges including COVID-19 and heightened tensions with China.

This is Prime Minister Abe’s second resignation on health grounds. The first was in September 2007, soon after his highly successful State visit to India in August of that year.

My association with Prime Minister Abe began at this time, when I was appointed as the Accompanying Minister for the duration of his State visit to India. In this capacity, I was part of his entourage from the moment he arrived in India till his departure, and therefore, had the opportunity of observing him from close quarters.

As a young child, Prime Minister Abe had grown up hearing stories from his grandfather Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi about the latter’s visit to India in 1957 when Jawahar Lal Nehru introduced him to the Indian people at one of the largest public receptions. The memory of this gesture continues to serve as a personal and emotional connect between Prime Minister Abe and India, as was evident in his memorable address to members of Parliament in 2007.

Statesman and a gentleman, Shinzo Abe will be missed by both India and Japan

During this visit also, Prime Minister Abe was suffering from the same ailment because of which his hectic official schedule was adjusted to give him a few minutes of personal time and relief between back to back meetings. On several occasions, I could sense from his facial expression a great sense of unease and discomfort. On such occasions, the soft and caring presence of Mrs. Abe was visibly comforting and reassuring.

Upon his arrival in New Delhi, Prime Minister Abe was accorded a Guard of Honour at the Forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan. After the impressive ceremony, while travelling with the couple in the official car, I could sense that Prime Minister Abe was pleased with the grandeur and solemnity of the reception.

The highlight of the visit was his acclaimed address on 22nd August to the joint Houses of Parliament in a packed Central Hall. The speech was titled “Confluence of the Two Seas”, which unveiled Abe’s vision of a “broader Asia” with an open, prosperous and peaceful Indo-Pacific region. Such was the eclectic effect of his powerful speech that Members of Parliament vied with each other to shake hands with him as he was ceremonially escorted out of the Central Hall.

Soon after returning to Japan, Prime Minister Abe tendered his resignation on 26th September 2007. The visuals of his resignation on TV screens have left an indelible imprint on my mind. The sight of Japan’s most powerful political figure, announcing his resignation with a deep bow and majestically striding past his senior colleagues who stood in respect in an even deeper bow, touched me to the depths of my being.

Here was a unique example of a leader who, in an act of selflessness chose to walk away from power and global limelight, answering the call of conscience. The two deeply moving bows at the time of his resignation in 2007 and 2020 will forever remain etched in public memory as deeply moving gestures of grace, gratitude, humility and dignity which define Abe san, as the man and statesman.

Deeply moved by this resignation, I sought an appointment with him for a courtesy call during one of my official visits to Tokyo in 2007. I met Prime Minister Abe at his party Office. This was an emotional meeting for me and lasted beyond the stipulated time. While taking leave of the former Prime Minister, I told him that he was destined to return and lead his country once again as Prime Minister, which he did.

In 2012, Shinzo Abe resumed the post of Prime Minister for the second time. In between, I had the privilege of receiving and hosting him at my residence in New Delhi. In 2013, I was appointed by Dr. Manmohan Singh as his Special Envoy to Japan to assist with preparations for the visit of the then Emperor and Empress of Japan to India in December of 2013.

In this connection, I visited Tokyo and called on Prime Minister Abe to discuss the Royal visit. The cordial meeting lasted for about forty minutes and I could sense from a smile on his face that the Prime Minister was recalling our earlier interactions in Delhi and Tokyo. He was passionate about the strategic partnership with India and wanted to invest it with a larger dimension, starting with an India-Japan joint initiative in Africa. A smile and a soft nod was his way of communicating warmth and agreement.

In 2017, the then Emperor of Japan was pleased to decorate me with ‘The Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun’. The decoration ceremony took place at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo in the presence of the Emperor and Prime Minister Abe, who handed to me the Emperor’s decoration on behalf of the Government of Japan with a smile. On this occasion although no words were exchanged, it was evident that Prime Minister Abe was happy to see me receiving the coveted decoration. Every time I meet him, I can sense the warmth in his eyes, even as he remains frugal with words.

The vision of political leadership in India and Japan to forge a strategic partnership stands vindicated in the face of Chinese aggression in Doklam and Ladakh. On the economic side, it is a matter of immense pride and satisfaction for me personally, that in 2019 the then Japanese Ambassador Kenji Hiramatsu accepted my invitation to visit Amritsar and my home district of Gurdaspur, to explore investment possibilities in the border districts of Punjab. This was in furtherance of the Abe Government’s push for Japanese investments in India. Capt. Amrinder Singh’s Government graciously treated the visiting Ambassador and his wife Mrs. Patricia Hiramatsu as State guests.

In these troubled times, when the world needs statesmen to address the extraordinary challenges of our age, Shinzo Abe’s absence as Prime Minister of Japan will be missed. As we wish Prime Minister Abe an early and full recovery, there is little doubt that his voice will be heard with respect in the chanceries of the world to confront the extraordinary challenges of our times. His resignation will be remembered in history as a humbling act of humility and dignity.

(The author is former Union Minister for Law and Justice. The views expressed are personal.)

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