How India and Japan can do business with each other
Writing on the wall - Ashok V. Desai
The previous prime minister was a universally friendly man; he did not have an enemy. Unfortunately, his undiscriminating friendliness did not make many friends for India. He got on fairly well with all great leaders, but did not bring any other country closer to India. He went religiously to G20 meetings every six months, greeted his fellow leaders, and returned in his commandeered Air India plane with his flunkeys.
The new prime minister also indulges in the same ritual; but he is warmer towards some countries than others. He is close to Shinzo Abe; he had miso with him, and learnt to shovel slippery foods into his mouth with chopsticks. The Japanese are very good towards anyone who adopts their culture, however partially and imperfectly; so Modi has gone some way towards making friends with them. The question now is whether he will leave it at the level of pleasantries as his predecessor did, or take it to a more national, more material level.
He has invited industrialists from other countries to manufacture goods in India. This is a good idea. Despite half a century of strenuous efforts, India has failed to become a leading industrial country; it is worth taking a close look at our policies towards foreigners and asking ourselves why we have been so ineffective in attracting them. I do not, however, think, that the new government will like the answer, which is that foreigners do not want any privileges; they want to be treated exactly like Indians. They want free entry for their goods, people and capital. For the rest, they would like to see the end of precisely the restrictions that Indian industrialists complain about — principally, restrictions on land acquisition and transfer, and on flexibility of employment. Unless the prime minister himself takes active interest and pushes reforms in these areas, nothing much can happen.
But there are things of interest to Japan that he can advance. When I was in the finance ministry 23 years ago, we were having a terrible payments crisis. Then we had a finance minister who was a great friend of the Japanese; Japan had helped us out in the crisis. So it was the first country the finance minister visited to convey India’s gratitude. I then had an idea — that Japan had an ageing population and could do with some help in reducing the costs of ageing. I had suggested setting up a city on the east coast where Japanese pensioners could settle down and enjoy a quiet life. I favoured the east coast because the Bay of Bengal could supply the Japanese their favourite fish. They could also be given good services — medical services as well as personal care — because of low labour costs in India. If we had set up a city for five million pensioners then, we would have solved our payments problem as it then was. Unfortunately, my superiors were not interested, and nothing came of the idea. The Filipinos picked it up; colonies of Japanese pensioners were created by them, and some pensioners even worked as business process outsourcers for firms in Japan.
I still think that making Japanese pensioners welcome is a good idea. But now that the leaders of the two countries have come closer, they should think more broadly: they should bring the two people closer. Indians as well as Japanese find each other strange. To a Japanese, Indians are noisy, boisterous, unkempt, and fond of impossibly hot and spicy food. Indians find the Japanese cold, distant, inexpressive, incommunicative, and fond of raw fish and tasteless food. All these prejudices are easily removable; the two people only need to be exposed more to each other, and the earlier in life that happens, the easier it will be. So what we need before all else is more people travelling between India and Japan, especially in their youth.
For the Japanese to come to India, we need Japanese-style hotels. They are not necessarily posh; but they must be squeaky clean, quiet, and they must serve Japanese food. They need not be full-scale hotels: they could be sections of larger hotels. But they should be places where the Japanese feel at home. The expense does not matter; the Japanese are rich. But the hotels should not be confined to metros; they should reach out into small cities and the countryside, especially to places of natural beauty — for instance, hill stations and beaches. And they must be planned on a large scale. The Japanese typically travel in groups, and favour tours that take in a number of sights. It would be best to engage Japanese organizations in the planning. If the Japanese begin to come in numbers, Indians will learn Japanese. Although they are rather devoted to English, Indians are not bad at languages. All that will be necessary will be some routine classes.