Geopolitical Notes From India
M D Nalapat
INDONESIA has the largest Muslim population of any country in the world, followed by Pakistan and then India. The archipelago is unlike in those states where the government has worked to ensure a monochrome quality to the societal fabric of the country, discouraging and often outrightly banning any deviation from the imposed norm. Except in a few locations where regional parties subscribing to an exclusivist agenda have been voted to office, overall authorities in Indonesia do not discriminate between Christians, Muslims and Hindus. Such a syncretic culture is especially vibrant in Java, the island that was the home province of the founder of post-colonial Indonesia, Achmed Soekarno, or “Bung (Brother) Karno”, as he was affectionately known among his people. Soekarno was a close friend of Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and worked together with him to ensure that European colonialism got banished from Asia and Africa, a task in which they enjoyed considerable success.
Bung Karno evolved a theory of global geopolitics, separating the world not by religion or race but on the basis of whether they were part of the “Old Emergent Forces” or the “New Emerging Forces” (NEFOS and OLDEFOS). He saw the newly independent countries of Asia in the NEFOS category, and the colonial states of Europe as OLDEFOS. According to the first President of the Republic of Indonesia, the countries emerging would soon surpass the former colonial states in development. It has taken a while, but Soekarno’s forecast has come true. China was a country tortured by more powerful states, undergoing suffering on a scale witnessed in the past by those who suffered the depredations of the Mongol hordes. However, now the Peoples Republic of China is on the cusp of becoming the biggest economy on the globe, while India and its long history of subjugation is less than a generation away from growing to be the third biggest economy on the planet, just below China and the US and comfortably overtaking present-day leaders Germany and Japan. The vast archipelago that is Indonesia has itself become among the most consequential countries on the planet, joining those groups that form the top economies of the globe
The overthrow of Soekarno by General Suharto led to a cooling of relations between Jakarta and Delhi. This was unfortunate, as the two countries have close cultural links. The immortal classic “Ramayana” is acted out in Indonesia almost as many times as it is played in India. In contrast to rulers who ordered the destruction of the Bamyan Buddhas along with several other artefacts, this columnist was surprised to see a statue of Lord Ganesh (among the most important members of the Hindu pantheon) at the entrance of the office of the President of Indonesia. An entirely apt choice, for Lord Ganesh is regarded as unblocking obstacles to progress, and removing blocks to fast growth is crucial for countries that still are home to tens of millions of very poor citizens, such as India and Indonesia. Relations between Delhi and Jakarta warmed up once Soekarno’s daughter Megawati took over as the elected Head of State in 2001.
It had been a popular leader of eastern India, Bijoyanand Patnaik, who had bestowed the name “Megawati” to Soekarno’s daughter, he being a close friend of the Indonesian leader who had been a tireless advocate of freeing Indonesia from its colonial master, Holland. Despite itself suffering the loss of independence as a consequence of German occupation (1940-45), Holland at first refused to do the honourable thing and allow the people of Indonesia to run their own lives. However, assisted by a wave of support from across the world, Soekarno led his people to full freedom in 1949, after conducting a military campaign against the Dutch authorities for four years. It must be added that hundreds of thousands of the Dutch people themselves supported freedom for Indonesia and opposed those in their country who sought to hang on to their colonial possessions the way the French authorities sought to keep Vietnam in subjugation, until they were defeated on the field of battle by Ho Chi Minh by 1951. In the case of India as well, several influential politicians in the UK, mainly from the Labour Party, opposed Winston Churchill in the latter’s rejection of the transfer of power from London to New Delhi. The common thread of suffering under the yoke of European powers brought India and Indonesia together in the past, and to this day such a shared history has worked to promote close ties between two countries located in the western half of the Indo-Pacific. Indeed, Jakarta would be a valuable addition to the Quadrilateral Alliance of India, the US, Japan and Australia. Together with Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam should also be invited to join, thereby forming a seven-member alliance that has the capacity to battle piracy and protect freedom of navigation within the Indo-Pacific.
In order to revive the Indonesia-India relationship to the level it was during the Soekarno-Nehru period, Prime Minister Modi has travelled to this important country and has held several rounds of discussions with President Joko Widodo (Jokowi). Both countries are victims of extremist violence, and oppose the exclusivist viewpoint of religious fanatics. It is expected that President Donald J Trump will visit India this year, and if so, it may be useful for him to visit Indonesia as well or invite President Widodo to Delhi to hold a tripartite meeting. The two countries are key to the western reaches of the Indo-Pacific, and discussions with the US President are crucial in the context of Trump pivoting US foreign policy away from its Atlanticist moorings to anchor in the Indo-Pacific. Modi and Widodo have stressed that India and Indonesia are now full strategic partners, in that both plan to defend each other against third party threats and attacks. Hopefully the Indian bureaucracy will ensure that the breakthrough in relations as a consequence of the Modi-Jokowi meeting get followed up at speed, rather than be left to languish way so many past initiatives have been.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.