Only I’ve brought my lute;
Try please to make me out thou astute.
These are the last two lines of my most favourite poem of Rabindranath Tagore, Sagarika, which was written when Gurudev visited the island of Bali in Indonesia (Dutch East Indies) in 1927. Here the poet was first imagining the long- lost past when he visited his “Daughter of the Sea” as a proud king, not to colonise but to bring India’s cultural ethos and warm friendship. Now the poet has returned to his beauty again, when India is devastated under colonial yoke and has lost all her past glory, with only the beena (lute) in his hand and desperately hoping that his beloved would recognize him. I hope that the experts will not laugh at my interpretation of the poem.
In modern times, India and Indonesia shared a remarkably similar fate. Both were under colonial rule for a couple of centuries, we under the British, Indonesia under the Dutch. India and Indonesia are the second and the fourth most populous countries in the world. Both attained Independence about the same time. No wonder Nehru and Sukarno, leaders of the freedom-fighters in the two countries, were personally close and together helped shape the first anti-imperialist block of Afro-Asian nations by co-sponsoring a new international order at the Bandung Conference in 1955. Indonesia’s overt support for Pakistan during the 1965 Indo-Pak war was the first breach in the relationship. After the failure of a Communist putsch supported by China, which resulted in the establishment of a military dictatorship there, India and Indonesia drifted apart.
This year saw dramatic political changes in both countries. On May 26, Narendra Modi was sworn in as our Prime Minister enjoying absolute majority in Parliament, leaving the rival Congress without even the “main opposition party” status there. On July 22, Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo was elected the President of Indonesia securing a decisive 6 per cent more votes than his rival, an ex-General, Prabowo Subianto. Our PM comes from a difficult economic background and had to help his father with selling tea at a railway station. Mr Widodo also comes from a very modest background. He is the son of a carpenter who pulled himself up to finally own a furniture exporting business before plunging into politics and becoming mayor of Surakarta, and then governor of the capital region of Jakarta. They both were outsiders. Modi had never any involvement in national politics before, and neither did Widodo. Both were viewed with suspicion by the national political establishment in their respective capitals.
An overwhelming part of Hindus reside in India, while Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world. Mr Widodo is described as a moderate Muslim, in a country where practically all Muslims are moderate. Mr Modi, a devotee of Swami Vivekananda, is projecting himself as a moderate Hindu. Their victories are so important that Time magazine put these two new Asian leaders on the front cover in a span of five months! Mr Modi was on the cover on May 22, under the banner “1.2 Billion People Await His Next Move.” This was right after his historic victory. Mr Widodo was on the cover of the October 27 issue with the banner “A New Hope”, three months after he won the Presidential election. The delay is due to the fact that the defeated establishment candidate, Prabowo Subianto, challenged the election result for fraud. The Constitutional Court has recently rejected the appeal unanimously, paving the way for Mr Widodo to take over the Presidency on October 20.
Mr Modi has earned accolades for his shift in focus of our foreign policy. He decided to strengthen relationship with our neighbouring countries. He is giving shape to his “Look East policy” by visiting Japan and entertaining the Chinese President and the Australian Prime Minister within months of assuming office. Indonesia actually fits both of these foreign policy priorities. It is our neighbouring country once we realise that the southern tip of the Andaman and Nicobar islands is very close to the Indonesian province of Aceh. Jakarta is far from our mainland, but is actually closer to Chennai than Beijing or Tokyo. It is an appropriate moment for these natural allies to strengthen their relationship to give a new shape to this South-South partnership. Australia has developed close ties with Indonesia as a major thrust of its foreign policy in recent years. It is high time that we work hard for an axis of economic cooperation between India, Indonesia and Australia in the coming years. We may call this the “Look South-East Policy.”
Of course, our “Look East Policy” is not entirely new. It took shape after the collapse of the Soviet Union and our economic liberalisation in the early Nineties. Both India and Indonesia recognised the need for strategic naval cooperation for maritime security in the Andaman Sea and the Malaccan Strait. This cooperation has only intensified with time. The economic cooperation, however, received a major setback in 1998-99 when Indonesia was severely affected by the Asian economic crisis, followed by popular revolt that led to the overthrow of the military dictatorship of General Suharto. After initial turmoil, the political establishment in Indonesia was able to manage the revolt by allowing popular democracy, while maintaining their grip on power by inserting special provisions in the Constitution.
Economic cooperation between India and Indonesia started picking up with four consecutive visits by Indonesian Presidents during the first decennia of this century, reciprocated to a somewhat lesser degree by Indian counterparts. Although investment by Indian companies in Indonesia has increased dramatically in recent years, reciprocal investment by Indonesia has so far been minimal. Trade ties are also far below their real potential. One difficulty often cited is similar export pattern and similar level of development of the two countries. But the export complementarity index of India and Indonesia is higher than Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and China. This is the right moment for two fresh leaders from outside the establishment to realise the full potential of economic cooperation between their countries.
Working in the Netherlands most of my adult life, I came across many students from Indonesia, most of them from the Institut Teknologi Bandung (ITB). It is like our IITs, built during the colonial period in the model of the Technische Hogeschool Delft. Most students from Indonesia doing Masters or Ph.D. in my group were electrical engineering graduates from the ITB. Some of them were as brilliant as students anywhere. ITB faculties and students I met were all keen to develop close academic partnership with the IITs. There is a need for more awareness and contacts at the people’s level between these two “distant neighbours” in the future. Promoting tourism might be a good start.
The writer is former Dean and Emeritus Professor of Applied Mathematics, University of Twente, The Netherlands
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