Reconstructing India’s Relationship With Indonesia


By virtue of their size, population, strategic location, economic progress, future potential, and to some extent their military developments, India and Indonesia today occupy a crucial position in Asian politics. The political consolidation and socio-economic developments in India after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Indonesia after President Suharto have demonstrated that both the countries occupy a powerful position within Asia.

It was India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the first Indonesian President Sukarno who originally sowed the seeds for the close friendship between the two countries today. Both leaders believed in friendship, cooperation and some kind of confederation between the countries. Nehru championed the Indonesian cause as the infant nation struggled to end Dutch imperialism. Later, Sukarno supported Nehru by invoking the “Spirit of Asia” and together with Yugoslavia’s President Josip Tito, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, and Egypt’s President Gamal Nasser laid the foundation for the non-aligned movement.

India’s economic liberalization and the unveiling of its “Look East Policy” in 1991 not only made it a major partner to the ASEAN region, but also revived ties with Jakarta, which had been disrupted when Indonesia came under military rule from 1965 to 1998. Today, Indonesia is India’s second-largest trade partner within ASEAN, expanding its trade volume from $6.9 billion in 2007-08 to $20.1 billion in 2012-13, with a forecast of $45 billion by 2015. While this number does not compare with the $100 billion target set for Sino-Indian exchange by 2015, it does suggest tremendous potential to develop the relationship.

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Culturally far from homogenous, Indonesia – an archipelago of about 17,500 islands – and India – a vast subcontinent – feature divergent cultures, dozens of languages, and ethnic groups that have preserved their way of life for centuries. Both countries share a commonality of mysticism, myth, rituals and values. Hindu epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata remain well known in Indonesia, and India (after Indonesia), has the second largest population of Muslims in the world.

With economic and cultural links, the continuing momentum for change in India and now in Indonesia suggests that the time is ripe to reconstruct their relationship. Moreover, as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi represents the passing of the Nehruvian era, championing ties with the world’s largest Islamic nation would do much to bolster Modi’s secular credentials and neutralize concerns over his perceived anti-Muslim leanings. Similarly, if Jokowi Widodo does prevail in the Indonesian elections (the vote counting was still ongoing at the time of writing), and if Basuki Purnama, a Chinese-Indonesian Christian, were to be elected Governor of Jakarta as Widodo’s replacement, it would also represent a win for racial equality and religious pluralism in Indonesia.

Nonetheless, regardless of which candidate wins in Indonesia, it is now Modi’s turn to recreate the “Spirit of Asia.” By doing so he will not only help both countries revive their fragile economies, cultural ties, and historical past, but also help develop much needed maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region. However, the militarization of the Indian Ocean should not be viewed separately from the question of world peace and a general and complete disarmament.

The two governments today are once again in a position to advance the interests of peace and disarmament, in step with the aspirations of developing nations in the South-South dialogue. Disarmament diplomacy and developmental diplomacy could go hand in hand if Indonesia and India reinvigorate their strategic ties.

When Bengali polymath Rabindranath Tagore visited Java in the 1920s, he said, “I see India everywhere but I find it nowhere.” Yet India and Indonesia ought to feel a profound sense of affinity given their shared history, culture, aesthetics, language and civilization. To awaken this latent potential, the two countries should actively invest in their relationship.

Gaurav Daga is a public policy analyst and columnist at Kuala Lumpur’s leading English daily The Malay Mail Online.

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