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What regime change in Japan means for India

August 31, 2009 18:05 IST

Media reports from Japan indicate that as widely forecast by opinion polls, the Democratic Party of Japan has won the elections to the House of Representatives, the lower House of the Japanese Diet (Parliament), held on August 30, dislodging from power the Liberal Democratic Party-led coalition, which had ruled the country almost continuously for over 50 years except for 11 months in 1997 when a non-LDP coalition ruled the country.

The 62-year-old Yukio Hatoyama, a founding father of the DPJ in 1996 and its President since May, who used to act as the media spokesperson of the non-LDP coalition in 1997, is expected to take over as the new Japanese prime minister.

The DPJ, which came into existence in 1996, was expanded on April 27, 1998, by merging into it the Party of Japan, the Good Governance Party, the New Fraternity Party and the Democratic Reform Party. The newly-expanded party had a liberal or social-democratic agenda. In 1998, as a result of these mergers, the newly-expanded DPJ had 93 members in the House of Representatives and 38 in the upper House called the House of Councillors.

Naoto Kan, former health and welfare minister, was appointed the president of the party and Tsutomu Hata, former prime minister, as secretary-general.

On September 24, 2003, the party was further expanded by merging into it the small, centre-right Liberal Party led by Ichir Ozawa, which had eight seats in the House of Councillors, but none in the lower House.

In the 2003 elections to the House of Representatives, the DPJ won 178 seats, increasing its tally by 85 seats, but still short of a majority. Following a pension scandal, Naoto Kan resigned and was replaced as president of the party by Katsuya Okada, a liberal. In the 2004 elections to the House of Councillors, the DPJ won one seat more than the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

In 2005, Junichiro Koizumi, the then prime minister, dissolved the House of Representatives before it had completed its tenure following the rejection by it of a bill moved by his government for the privatisation of the postal banking services and called for fresh elections. The DPJ did badly in the elections and lost 62 seats to the LDP. Following this electoral set-back, Okada resigned as party president and was replaced by Seiji Maehara in September 2005. He had to resign on March 31, 2006, following allegations that he used a fake e-mail to make allegations of wrong-doing against the Koizumi government. He was replaced on April 7, 2006, by Ichir Ozawa as the party president.

The real credit for building the DPJ, which started as a hotch-potch party of various liberal or social democratic factions, into a viable political formation capable of beating the LDP should go to Ozawa, who started his political career as a member of the LDP in the Diet in 1969 succeeding his father and as a political aide to Kakuei Tanaka, the legendary LDP leader. Dissatisfied with the policies of the LDP leadership, he and some of his followers quit the LDP in 1993. After his resignation from the LDP, he gravitated to the small New Frontier Party and then to the Liberal Party, which subsequently merged with the DPJ. Even before he moved to the DPJ, he had published a document titled a Blueprint for a New Japan, which called for electoral reforms and more assertive foreign-affairs and defense policies.

As the president of the DPJ, he worked for gaining public support to some of these ideas incorporated in his blueprint. He had to resign abruptly as the party president in May this year after his secretary Takanori Okubo was accused of accepting political donations from a company involved in scandals. Ozawa, who had pledged to cleanse Japanese politics of corruption and wrong-doing, was embarrassed when his own secretary was allegedly found involved in political corruption.

But for this, Ozawa would have led the DPJ to victory in the elections and might have become the new prime minister. Ultimately, after the resignation of Ozawa, Yukio Hatoyama, who has been in the DPJ right from its inception in 1996, took over as the president and led it to a spectacular electoral victory, which would make him the prime minister. While Ozawa was embarrassed by the scandal involving his secretary, he has not been politically weakened. He still has many supporters and admirers in the party and is expected to play an important role in policy-formulation either as a member of the Cabinet under Hatoyama or as a senior functionary of the party.

Hatoyama, who belonged to a blue-blooded LDP family, studied engineering at the prestigious University of Tokyo and earned his PhD from the Stanford University of the US. His grand-father was the prime minister of Japan from 1954 to 56. His father served as the foreign minister of Japan for some years. Hatoyama, who started his career as a teacher, entered politics in 1983 as the personal secretary to his father.

In a personality profile on Hatoyama disseminated on August 27, Mari Yamaguchi of the Associated Press wrote as follows: "Stiff and professor-like, Hatoyama is an unlikely figure to bring about major political change. He is not seen as charismatic and has a tendency to be verbose and dismissive. His shock of curly hair is often piled up on his head as though he just awoke from a troubled sleep. He has even garnered the nickname "alien" because he can come across as eccentric or aloof. During the campaign, Hatoyama appealed to voters with promises that he will cut wasteful government spending, rein in the power of the bureaucracy and put more money in consumers' pockets by holding off on tax hikes that the ruling party has said are in the works. One of his biggest departures from the LDP's positions is Japan's relationship with the United States, its biggest trading partner and military ally. He wants Japan to be more independent from Washington and closer to Asia. "We must not forget our identity as a nation located in Asia," he has said. But Hatoyama has also stressed he does not intend to change Japan's course overnight. In an opinion piece published Thursday in The New York Times, Hatoyama said the US-Japan alliance would "continue to be the cornerstone of Japanese diplomatic policy." Polls indicate that voters want change -- but not too much. And Hatoyama's relatively conservative pedigree suggests that he's not going to seek any radical departures from what most Japanese feel comfortable with."

Some Japanese analysts view the victory of the DPJ under Hatoyama as more due to the disgust of large sections of the voters with the long period of corruption and cronyism ridden LDP rule than to any fascination for the DPJ and Hatoyama. Hatoyama has promised wide-ranging changes in the political, economic and social spheres. They are doubtful of his ability to deliver.

Three of his promised flagship changes are:
Regional sovereignty. He has promised to reverse the process of the over-centralisation of the Japanese government under the LDP by transferring more powers and funds to regional authorities.

Breaking the nexus between the bureaucracy and the political rulers which, according to him, became the hallmark of the LDP rule. He has promised that he will ensure that politicians are responsible for policy formulation and the bureaucrats are responsible for implementation.

A shift away from the urban-centric policies of the LDP towards greater attention and importance to the problems of the rural areas.

He has also promised many lollipops to various segments of the population such as pensioners, farmers etc. Sceptics are doubtful whether he would be able to implement them and, even if he wants to, whether he will be able to find the required funds if he sticks to his promise not to raise taxes.

In the manifesto issued by the DPJ when Okada was the party president before the 2005 elections to the House of Representatives, the references to India were positive. It said:
"India is expected to be a nucleus of Asian economic development in the 21st century along with Japan, China, South Korea, and ASEAN. It projects a unique charisma not only as an economic, demographic, and cultural/ philosophical giant but also as a huge democracy. Establishing and maintaining a close relationship, including strategic, with this India will be in the national interests of Japan and will expand Japan's diplomatic options.

"The East Asian Community should never become an exclusive institution. India, Australia, and New Zealand will be important partners when building a full-scale East Asian Community.

"Japan can also promote a joint sea lane patrol program against terrorists and pirates in collaboration with ASEAN, China, India, and the United States, naturally paying due respect to the sovereignty of coastal states."

At the same time, it contained a worrisome reference linking Pakistan's nuclear proliferation to the Kashmir issue. It said: "In the overall context of Asian security, WMD proliferation and terrorism are extremely important challenges. The new Japanese government will further promote the Proliferation Security Initiative and actively engage itself with the peaceful solution of the Kashmir conflict, which has led to the nuclear armament of India and Pakistan."

All these references to India have disappeared from the election manifesto for the August 30 elections drafted under the presidentship of Hatoyama. The only reference to India in the manifesto is the following sentence: "Play a leadership role in environmental diplomacy and encourage the participation of major emitter nations, including the United States, China and India, in the "post-Kyoto" international framework for greenhouse gas emissions reduction."

What are the views of Hatoyama on India? Does he attach importance to the strategic relationship between India and Japan? The answers to these questions are not yet available. If one were to go by the latest manifesto, Hatoyama's world consists essentially of Japan, the US, China, South Korea, North Korea (all mentioned by name) and "other countries". India has been relegated to the position of one of the "other countries".

Is this interpretation correct? One has to wait and see.

B Raman