New Age Islam
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Current Affairs ( 28 Oct 2014, NewAgeIslam.Com)

Interpreting the Indonesian Mandate


By Sudhir T. Devare

October 29, 2014

Joko Widodo’s electoral victory signifies how far Indonesia has travelled in a short span from a military-run totalitarian regime to a full-fledged democracy. This transition, in which the Indonesian media and civil society played a major role, does not; however, seem to have captured enough imagination even within Asia

The inauguration last week, on October 20, 2014, of the third directly elected President of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, marks a watershed development in the political landscape of Indonesia. The event saw for the first time in decades spontaneous jubilation by thousands of common people for their new “who belongs to us” President who in turn gave a call to “drivers, trishaw pullers, fishermen, vendors, among others to rally behind him to build a stronger, prosperous Indonesia.” The inauguration was attended by leaders from Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and the U.S Secretary of State, John Kerry. In a significant move, President Widodo in the first meeting with his new Cabinet, has directed them to fulfil his vision and mission, and not of the individual ministries.

This peaceful and constitutional transfer of power from a former general to a commoner also signifies how far Indonesia has travelled in a short span of 16 years, from a military-run totalitarian regime to a full-fledged democracy, the third largest in the world. This phenomenal transition, in which the Indonesian media and civil society played a major role does not, however, seem to have captured enough imagination even within Asia. For India, which is separated from Indonesia by less than 100 nautical miles from the Nicobar Islands, the changes in this vast neighbouring country have profound implications. Indeed, the relationship between the two countries can be termed as one of the oldest, going back to millennia encompassing maritime tradition, and religious, cultural, linguistic, literary exchanges.

Domestic Challenges

President Widodo’s victory in the keenly contested (the margin was six per cent of vote) direct election in July against Prabowo Subianto, a former general and Soeharto’s son-in-law, was unprecedented. It was challenged by Mr. Prabowo and declared valid by the Constitutional Court only a few weeks ago. Mr. Widodo’s win is thus not without a major domestic challenge. Mr. Prabowo who has stitched together a strong opposition, known as the “Red and White” (KMP) coalition in Parliament following the elections last April, had remained defiant and only last week offered to cooperate. His unexpected presence at the Inauguration to greet the new President and the latter’s reference in his speech to Mr. Prabowo as “my best friend” are seen as generous gestures towards reconciliation. With 67 per cent Parliament members in the KMP coalition, Mr. Widodo faces a hostile opposition which has already garnered key parliamentary posts and abolished the system of direct elections, the very reform which had enabled Mr. Widodo to rise to the top, first as a Mayor of Solo, then as Governor of Jakarta and now as the President. Much will now depend on whether Jokowi, with his direct and confident approach to the people and persuasion skills, can win over an adequate number of opposition members in Parliament to his side.

Rise of IS

The new Indonesian President’s priorities are expected to be domestic, with the economy being the topmost. On the social front, the concern over the rise of Islamic fundamentalism has occupied attention at the highest level in recent years. Radicalism spurred by extremist religious teachings has been the primary challenge for the “national resilience” programme and counter-terrorism campaign. Even though the Islamic parties scored over 30 per cent vote in the parliamentary elections last April, it is significant that none of them has called for Indonesia to become an Islamic state or for the implementation of Sharia law. Their focus, like that of other national parties, is on education, cost of living, health care, good governance and the tolerant and pluralistic nature of the Indonesian society under the Pancasila constitution remains their principal objective.

The recent developments in West Asia with the rise of terror activities of the Islamic State (IS) have their repercussions in Indonesia, the biggest Muslim country in the world. Former President Yudhoyono had warned that Indonesians should avoid thinking that IS is a distant threat. Abu Bakar Bashir, the former spiritual head of Jemaah Islamiyah, the group behind the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings, had called for his followers to lend support to IS. An unknown number of Indonesians have reportedly travelled to West Asia to join IS. More than 200 people from Southeast Asia are estimated to have gone to Syria and Iraq to fight for it. Before his swearing-in, Mr. Widodo had said that he would lay stress on taking religious, cultural and security approaches to curb IS’s influence on Indonesian terror groups. During his visit to Jakarta for the inauguration of the new President, John Kerry sought more help from Southeast Asian leaders in the U.S- led effort against IS. India, too is severely affected and deeply concerned by the rise of IS in West Asia where India has huge stakes, human and material.

ASEAN as Priority

In the field of foreign policy, Indonesia has taken several useful initiatives in recent years, which has raised its profile as a regional power. Its effort through shuttle diplomacy towards securing Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) unity in the wake of differences over the South China Sea issue at the Phnom Penh Foreign Minister’s meeting in 2012 was one such example. Under the new President too, Indonesia’s priority is expected to be ASEAN. In the next concentric circle lie some major powers such as China, Japan, India and Australia with which Indonesia has extensive ties. Indonesia’s proposal for an Indo-Pacific Treaty fits well with its engagement with other regional players in developing the security architecture in the Asia-Pacific. Bordering on three crucial choke points, namely the Malacca, Sunda and Lombok Straits, Indonesia is in an excellent position to contribute to this architecture.

How India-Indonesia relations would shape up in the new political dispensations in both countries can be a very important question and calls for immediate discussion at the highest levels.

The coincidence of several issues in the recent elections in India and Indonesia could not be more striking. Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Widodo come from humble economic backgrounds, without any military or elite family connection. While Mr. Modi was a tea vendor in his childhood, Mr. Widodo was a small-time furniture entrepreneur who grew up in a slum in Solo in central Java. Both are outsiders to their capitals. Mr. Modi as a stump orator in Hindi and Mr. Widodo in his impromptu visits to and talks with common people have won their hearts, a feat not seen before in both countries. Their victories have raised enormous hope and great expectations across their countries. The mandates received by them also appear quite similar — to root out corruption and bring transparency, good governance and employment.

Ties with India

Indonesia has played and continues to play an important part in our Look East policy. India-Indonesia relations have expanded significantly in recent years with several high level visits and trade and economic exchanges. Indonesia has emerged critical for India’s coal imports and entrepreneurs from India are making investments in Indonesia’s coal, oil and gas and mining sectors. The level of overall bilateral engagement is however still far below the potential for the countries, which are two of Asia’s largest emerging economies, long-time partners in their struggle for independence, champions of the philosophy of non-alignment and, above all, democracies with young populations poised to play a major role not only in Asia but beyond. Sharing of mutual experiences in the democratic governance of these vast nations can itself be a very useful exercise in cooperation and understanding. Through this, the two largest countries in South and Southeast Asia can become pillars of stability and security in Asia.

Among a number of fields which can be identified for close interaction are defence, maritime security, counter-terrorism, the environment, education, economic cooperation through investments on both sides, culture and arts, technology including IT, space and nuclear power, etc. The list can be a long and impressive one.

During his inauguration speech, President Widodo underlined the need for Indonesia to focus on its maritime heritage. He reminded the people that the future of their archipelagic nation lay with the seas, adding that the old slogan “At sea, we are triumphant” (In Sanskrit, Jalaseva Jayamahe) needed to be revived. In India, we should welcome this new emphasis of Indonesia on the maritime dimension. For centuries the two countries were bound to each other by maritime trade and cultural contact across the oceans. Hinduism, Buddhism and later Islam went from India to Indonesia by sea, as also textiles from Gujarat and the Coromandel coast while spices travelled from Indonesia by the maritime route.

Today, India and Indonesia can cooperate in a host of maritime matters such as disaster relief, anti-piracy, coastal security against human or drug trafficking, resource and climate research, port construction and naval ship production. Indonesia, as the next Chairman of the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC), can play a very constructive role in this field along with India, Australia and other countries of Asia and Africa.

In November, President Widodo and Prime Minister Modi will be attending the G-20 summit in Australia and the East Asian Summit in Myanmar. Their personal rapport would no doubt create a new stage for the revival of the ancient but enduring relationship and to take it to a higher level.

Sudhir T. Devare, former Secretary, MEA, and Ambassador to Indonesia, is Ram Sathe Chair Professor at Symbiosis International University, Pune and Noida.