Vita Daravonsky Busyra, a young lecturer in London School of Public Relations in Jakarta, adds a curious suffix to her name, MLA, that connotes her education degree, master in liberal arts and not her political status like in India. She is only one among a group of 30-odd students and teachers who heard about demonetisation in India. Others know about India through its Bollywood movies and stars.
She asks a very innocent question, “I have seen in videos that people lining up in queues outside banks for their money while some people are splurging money in lavish marriages. How come this paradox exists?” In TV news, she had seen the outrageously ostentatious marriage of Karnataka politician Janardan Reddy’s daughter after the demonetisation move.
In a few sentences, Busyra conjured up the image of India that was quite discomfiting in presence of Ambassador Suresh K Reddy who is given special assignment of leading Indian mission to ASEAN (association of south east Asia nations). Reddy is a diplomat with redoubtable reputation. He was instrumental in rescuing nurses and hundreds of Indian workers who were trapped in Iraq and Syria during the height of conflict through his unparalleled persuasive skills with a dash of flamboyance. Apparently he is given the unenviable task of leveraging India’s soft power in the region to expand India’s strategic and economic influence.
But that objective gets substantially eclipsed by an imagery of India that people like Janardan Reddy put across. It rather makes task of Ambassador Reddy difficult. Yet the cultural and civilisational ties with India are so deep that one can discern “India” everywhere in Indonesia. At Monas in Jakarta, along with the city’s monument exists a magnificent chariot of Arjuna’s driven by Lord Krishna with nearly over a dozen horses beautifully sculpted on stones.
In the entire Islamic world, Indonesia is still seen as a peaceful multicultural society. With its largest Muslim population, there has been a consistent attempt to keep the culture away from the religion. “You see Islam in Indonesia came from India and it was distinctly different from the Islam followed in Arab world” said a respected editor-in-chief of The Jakarta Post Endy M Bayuni. However he acknowledges that there is a distinct sign of the society getting radicalized and inspired by an ideology which promotes puritanism and intolerance.
Of late there are reports of 500-odd youth from Indonesia joining the Islamic State (IS) to fight for Islamic Caliphate. On the streets , there are daily protests and marches by clerics and radicals to protest against bombing by US and Russia against Islamic fighters. Most of these fighters who after a stint in Iraq and Syria return to Indonesia and get a hero’s welcome as there is no law in the country to detain them. “It is an uphill task to deradicalise them though the state has been grappling with that” said an Indian diplomat.
But the most brazen case of growing clout of Islamists in Indonesia relates to prosecution of a hugely popular Christian Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama “Ahok “of Chinese descent. Known popularly as Ahok , he is regarded as no-nonsense governor who single handedly transformed Jakarta’s social life for better. But his faith and his chinese “descent” proved to be his nemesis as Islamists attacked him for being a non-Muslim who, according to Quran, is incapable of leading the Muslims. Ahok made the cardinal mistake of contradicting Muslim clerics and invited “blashphemy charges”. In all probability, Ahok will be convicted and jailed ahead of gubernatorial elections to be held in the next month.
There is little doubt that Indonesian president Joko Widodo has been grappling with an extremely difficult situation and maintaining a delicate balance between extremism and liberalism that characterize the society. Given the fact that Indonesian constitution recognizes six religion- Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Protestantism, Catholicism and Confucianism – Widodo has beem making a determined attempt to resist the radicalisation that threatens to fall apart the inherent resilience of Indonesian society.
Referring to a unique feature of cohesiveness of Indonesian society, Ambassador Reddy says that the interdependence of various communities has made the society a cohesive unit. “This unique characteristic has enabled Indonesia to run its effective governance in its vast territory” he said. Indonesia has control over 11000-odd islands across Indian ocean. It has emerged as the most powerful economic force in the grouping of 10 Asean nations. Despite its disputes with China and neighbouring countries, Indonesia has not let these hostilities come in the way of its economic development. China has been exercising overweening influence in the region on account of its economic clout. Chinese investment in infrastructure projects across the region has grown manifold.
According one official estimate, Asean has emerged third largest economy after China and Japan with a combined GDP of 2.5 trillion US dollars. By the end of 2030, it is projected as fourth largest economy after EU, US and China. Obviously the region is seen as a bright spot where India has immense potential to grow. With India making an emphasis on manufacturing and service sector, the Asean offers a huge market.
Though India set up its embassy to engage with Asean, a collection of nations with features of struggling democracies like Indonesia and Malaysia, semi-democracies like Singapore, military Junta like Thailand and Kingdom like Cambodia, only last year, its age-old cultural ties with the region reaffirms India’s civilisational connect. In words of an Indian diplomat, “you will find India everywhere but at the same time it is nowhere”. The implicit message is that the civilization connect is meaningless in absence of economic clout.
At a time when Narendra Modi has been making an attempt to use India’s soft power to extend its area of influence in the Asean region, the spectacular marriages like that of Janardan Reddy’s daughter are certainly bad advertisement for the country. In fact, Busyra’s innocuous query on the paradox of long queues outside banks after demonetization and marriage extravaganza in India hugely is reflective of India’s predicament in the region.
Disclosure: The author was in Indonesia as part of the Asean Media Exchange tour organised by the Ministry of External Affairs
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Updated Date: Dec 22, 2016 12:20:20 IST