India & Indonesia: Relationship and Beyond

Vibhanshu Shekhar is research fellow at the Indian Council of World  Affairs, New Delhi.He can be contacted at

Vibhanshu Shekhar

Probably, no other country, outside South Asia shares so much of history, culture and politics with India as Indonesia does. It is a relationship built over a millennium and the bond remains strong and intact.

It is really befitting the relationship that the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono became the special guest on the country’s republic day on Jan. 26, 2011, a welcome received by only one more Indonesian – Sukarno, the first president of Indonesia and a close friend of Jawaharlal Nehru.

 Indonesian President Sukarno with son Guntur Sukarnoputra and daughter Megawati Sukarnoputri while receiving Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi.

At the end of the first decade of 21st century, the two rising powers with their fundamentally altered outlook are staring at a different Asia and a different world. As India and Indonesia rise to pre-eminence, their emerging outlook tell us a somewhat similar story but in sharp contrast with the rest of Asia.

They are ethnically most diverse societies in the world, the largest Asian democracies, largest Muslim countries, registering high level of sustained economic growth and emerging powers of 21st century. The two rising powers and millennia-old civilisational entities have, almost subconsciously, been rhyming together somewhat similar sets of principles and grand rules of national and international political behavior in the 21st century. These elements can broadly be clubbed under a common ‘Delhi-Jakarta Paradigm.’

First, their rise has broken many myths, which have, for long, remained couched in academic jargons and packaged beautifully across the world both by the Western as well as Oriental agents. The two countries have proven that democracy as a form of governance, though somewhat imperfect, can be ideated and practiced in the multi-ethnic, Muslim, Asian, and erstwhile authoritarian polities.

Moreover, the Asian societies can indigenize and give a completely native accent to the democratic political discourse based on principles germane to human relations. Unlike the West, they have never tried to impose their form of democracies on other societies.

Challenging the fundamental notions of “Asian way” the paradigm suggests that democracy and development can co-exist in the Asian multi-ethnic societies. Practicing democracy does not necessarily require high level of per capita income or any vague notion of political stability.

These polities need not take the authoritarian path and justify large-scale human-rights violations being committed in the name of stability and development. This was the vision that three friends – Nehru, Sukarno and U Nu – had shared and charted together for the future of their countries. While two of these countries seem to be treading successfully on the democratic path, Myanmar seems to have tumbled down a different path.

Second, the rise of India and Indonesia has changed the way the world looks at Asia, necessitating fundamental transformation in the prevailing international order. Both the powers are important stakeholders in and claimants for the structural reforms in the global institutions that were formed in a particular setting in the aftermath of the World War II and represented the world-views and interests of the victorious West (European and other Anglo-Celtic societies).

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (center) greets the crowd as he walks with Indian President and Prime Minister after the Republic Day parade 2011 in New Delhi. Image: AP/Gurinder Osan

These institutions in the changing geopolitical realities of 21st century need to be more democratic and representative. Not long ago, on their way to stability and development, the democratic leaderships of both India and Indonesia felt arm-twisted by the structurally flawed and insensitive policies of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in the aftermath of the economic crises.

The two countries also sit on the high table of G-20, deliberating over the economic issues of global concern. It was in this context of greater participation and democratization of international institutions that President Yudhoyono, while speaking at Global Economic Forum in January 2011, called upon Asian nations to be the ‘change makers.’

While the rise of Asian powers – China, India and Indonesia – has repositioned Asia in the world, a new debate has ensued about the evolving structure of power within the continental geopolitics. The rise of Asian powers along with the re-engagement of USA and Russia have necessitated that any formulation of Asian security order must be based on the principle of multi-polarity. India’s Look East Policy and Indonesia’s ‘Dynamic equilibrium’ call for a multi-polar power structure in the Asia-Pacific.

The evolving multi-polarity not only diffuses the great power tension but also make other Asian players equally important stakeholders in the future peace, stability and security in the region. Moreover, the multipolarity can also enable India and Indonesia to effectively address three pertinent issues facing the continental geopolitics. These are greater economic integration, growing prominence of great power politics, and desperate efforts to institutionalize the integrative processes and great power relations.

While speaking at Harvard University in September 2009, the Indonesian president called for devising new methods and strategies for dialogue between the West and Muslim world and between civilizations.

A new set of discourse is needed as India and Indonesia work towards engaging the West in the larger civilisational dialogue not only with the Muslim world but also with the larger oriental world. The two largest Asian and Muslim democracies need to pioneer a world-wide moderate and harmonious dialogue between (a) the West and East, and (b) between the West and Muslim World.

It is an irony that the two largest Muslim countries have failed to dictate the discourse over the relationship between faith and politics, between Islam and national culture, rather fallen victims to the orthodox and inhibitive radical Islam being exported from the Middle East in the name of being authentic and sacred.

The two countries need to work together to undermine the radical discourse and evolve a discourse that is inclusive, harmonious and peaceful.

These principles offer both normative as well as pragmatic discourse, rooted in the geopolitical and societal realities of the Orient. As the two countries get more and more empowered, they would need to feel greater responsibilities to work towards building an empowered Asia and a democratized world order.

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