Forget China, India Should Look towards Indonesia

Pallavi Aiyar
Grist Media

(A view of Jakarta's skyline. Photo by The Diary of a Photo Addict via flickr, Creative Commons.)

Indians rarely agree on much, but they do tend towards an uncommon consensus about the belief in Indian exceptionalism. Rightists, Leftists and Opportunists find themselves on the same page in espousing the idea that as a country and civilization, India is uniquely diverse, contradictory, large, tolerant, and complex.

Having been educated into a strong emotional attachment to what I was taught was India’s “unique” brand of secular syncretism, this is a conviction that I held on to strongly for years. It was somewhat of a salve for the open wound that India’s poverty, misogyny, caste oppression and myriad other forms of human debasement, caused to continually fester.

The decade I spent reporting from China, and later Europe, only served to strengthen this belief. In Smoke and Mirrors, my 2008 China-memoir, I compared China and India on a number of parameters. Both countries were geographically immense, generously populated and rooted in ancient historical civilizations. Yet, from an Indian perspective, China with its one official language (India has 23 official languages), standardized written script, one major ethnicity, and political tendency (in both past and present) towards imposing uniformity, was a relatively homogenous entity.

In my concluding chapter I spent time analysing and admiring many of China’s unprecedented economic achievements. India had clearly failed to measure up. However, I argued, India’s “historically unparalleled” political feat was something the world should also recognize. I waxed eloquent about India’s existence against the odds as a country held together not by geography, language, religion, or ethnicity, but by an idea that insisted on the possibility (and desirability) of multiplicity.

In 2009, I moved to Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union, where I spent the next three years reporting on Europe. I discovered how much of the 19th and 20th century history of many European countries had involved the blasting of their demographic complexity into the flatness of nations based on the ideal of a single language and a single religion. India, from 1947, was a defiant refutation of the idea that demographicsimplicity was needed for sustaining a political unit.

Punjabi Parmesan, the book that I subsequently wrote, ended by holding out the possibility that India had something to teach the European Union. I called India a proto-EU; an idea that was testament to the fact that it is possible to successfully create a dynamic, common identity out of seemingly fractured multiplicity.

But then I moved to Jakarta in mid-2012, and realized that Indians were not exceptional as much as ignorant. Our obsession with rising China and the wealthy West had blinded us to our civilizational sibling and democratic neighbour: Indonesia. This is a country as eclectic, unruly, and “tolerant” as India; as sprawling, complex, and implausible as India, and yet a country only rarely hyphenated with India, even as India and China have been squashed into the ungainly portmanteau of Chindia.

Discovering Jakarta

The decision to move to Jakarta had been an instinctive, rather than well-informed, one. After three years in Brussels, my husband, Julio, was offered a job at the European Union’s delegation in Jakarta. We talked it over and agreed that Indonesia would be an exciting opportunity, precisely because we knew so little about it. It was a large, Muslim-majority, country, and we had an imprecise hunch that it was more important and interesting than was internationally acknowledged. I was also aware that the beach paradise of Bali was a largely Hindu island, one of the few areas outside of India where Hinduism still flourished. But with this fact, my meagre knowledge of Indonesia dried up.

We packed up our bags, cats, and children and made the 18-hour journey halfway across the world, to arrive in Jakarta on a sweltering evening in late August. The annual Lebaran (Eid-ul-Fitri) holiday that marked the end of the month-long fasting period of Ramadan was just coming to an end, and the city was slowly bubbling back to traffic jam-clogged life.

My first few weeks in Jakarta had a jigsaw-like quality to them. I was stuck in cramped, temporary accommodation with a jet-lagged 15-month-old baby, a rambunctious four-year-old, two disoriented cats and not much help. Julio disappeared into office and adult life, while I desperately tried to find playgroups, schools, domestic staff and a permanent home.

I had little time to read up on the country, and even fewer opportunities to explore the city on my own terms, without having to soothe a crying child or answer endless questions about the taxonomy of dinosaurs. As a result, much of what I observed was in snatches, like the scattered pieces of a puzzle that I only put together in later, more reflective, months.

One of the first things to strike me was the variety and syncretism of the names I encountered. Scanning the newspaper on any given day revealed a smorgasbord of improbable monikers: Teddy Anwar, Wisnu Ali, Veronica Colondam, Leanardus Nyoman, Goenawan Mohammad.

The architectural equivalents of these names also reared up ever so often. The country’s main nationalist monument (the equivalent of Delhi’s India Gate) was called Monas, an obelisk that rose over a hundred meters into the sky and was located in expansive grounds in a square just off the Presidential Palace in central Jakarta. This was clearly the beating heart of symbolic power in Indonesia.

I walked around the Monas area one weekday morning (the baby having been deposited with a newly hired nanny). The monument’s southwest corner was dominated by an enormous statue of the Hindu god Krishna, leading the Pandava prince, Arjuna, into battle atop a chariot pulled by a fleet of kinetic horses. At the diagonally opposite end of Monas, the marble minaret of Jakarta’s largest mosque, the Istiqlal, and the cast iron steeples of the city’s Catholic Cathedral, jointly punctuated the skyline.

Later that afternoon I had an appointment with a real estate agent who took me to visit a number of prospective residences. She turned out to be a slim, young, Muslim woman called Dewi (as in ‘Devi’), who wore a western-style, fitting, satin gown. She had just returned from a wedding, she explained. When we passed a large, dilapidated house during our wanderings, she off-handedly mentioned that the building was haunted. A Muslim woman with a Hindu name, in European clothes, talking about ghosts, sounds like a description of schizophrenia, and yet it was nothing of the sort. Dewi, like most Indonesians, simply didn’t recognize this way of being as a contradiction.

Gradually, I began to settle into my new life. With Dewi’s help, I located a home. I found a pet store that sold cat-scratching posts. I bought a painted Javanese cabinet, and found a trilingual international school for my older son where he learnt English, Chinese and Bahasa Indonesia.

I started taking Bahasa classes myself. Indonesia’s national language, a standardized form of Malay, was resonant with the echoes of Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, and English. The word Bahasa itself is a derivative of the Sanskrit term for language, “bhasha.” One could feel terribly uneducated in Jakarta, given that everyone from shop attendants to itinerant street vendors peppered ordinary conversation with lofty vocabulary like “manushya” (man), “karena“ (because) and gajah (elephant).

I gathered nouns and adjectives (verbs were another story) with ease. Utara (north), masjid (mosque), roti (bread), asli (genuine), stroberi (strawberry), and dunia (world): it was a cinch for an Indian. As I was rapidly realizing, India and Indonesia did not merely share similar sounding names. Our cultures and histories were deeply intertwined. And our civilizations had proved capacious and open to similar, amalgamative influences. Hindu, Buddhist, Animist, Islamic and Christian thought and practices had mingled in complex historical patterns, with pilgrims, traders, warriors and colonizers from Arabia, Persia, China, and Europe leaving their imprints on both countries. India and Indonesia had for the most part resisted fundamentalism. They had instead domesticated outside influences and developed a multi-religious and tolerant ethos.

Jakarta was located on Java, Indonesia’s (and the world’s) most populous island. It was also the nation’s political and cultural core. Extensive trade routes between south and southeast Asia resulted in Java being heavily influenced by Indian-origin, Hindu-Buddhist culture. By the 7th century CE, Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms ruled over most of Indonesia’s western islands.

This fact caused much chest thumping amongst a section of Indians. Every article or social media post I wrote over the years that indicated any virtue of Indonesian culture or society, immediately elicited a flood of testosterone-driven replies from assorted Indian nationalists about how everything good in Indonesia has been imported from mother India. But it was wrong to imagine that Java and Sumatra (amongst the most “Hindu” of Indonesia’s islands) were some passive outposts of Indian empire. The populations of Southeast Asia in fact maintained significant aspects of their original cultures, as they first “Hinduized”, and later converted to Islam from the 16th century on.

The 16th century also saw successive waves of Europeans make their presence felt on the archipelago. The Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and British all sought to dominate the spice trade, although over the course of the 18th century, the Dutch United East India Company established itself as the dominant force in the region. The company’s possessions in the archipelago passed to the Dutch crown in 1800, where they remained until Indonesia declared its independence in 1945 (a fact the Dutch only recognized in 1949).

So much of this history was instantly recognizable to an Indian. In fact my most vivid early impression of Indonesia was simply one of familiarity. This was a stark contrast to my first reactions to China. The intellectual traditions of Confucianism and Taoism, a long history of territorially focused empire, and the modern rupture with the past that communism had wrought, combined to make China a creature of a markedly different temperament to India’s.

Wandering the streets of Beijing had felt like exploring an alternative dimension. The language was wholly alien in sight and sound. The scale of the imperial palaces and their communist equivalents felt outlandish. The highways seemed impossibly smooth. The winter cold was frighteningly desolate. The sugarless, milk-free “tea” that everyone drank was not a beverage of any familiarity. And despite the fact that the days when everyone dressed in identical Mao suits were long over, there was an underlying uniformity to the physical and intellectual lives of Chinese cities that was disconcerting to an Indian.

Every big city had identically glittering glass and chrome malls. Smaller towns used bathroom tiles and blue plexiglass windows as their “posh” construction material of choice. Everyone had watched the same films. And everyone seemed to ask the same questions about India: “Why don’t you have a one child policy? You have too many people.” Or “Do you know La Zi [the Chinese name for Raj Kapoor]?”.

The heated political debates that were par for the course on Indian trains were absent. The pageantry of street demonstrations and strikes was missing. Calls to prayer and the ringing of temple bells were rarely part of the aural backdrop. And absolute poverty of the kind where children with distended bellies and flies in their eyes play on open gutters was hearteningly uncommon.

As I concluded in Smoke and Mirrors, China and India were like mirror images, their strengths and weaknesses in symmetrical opposition. Excited journalists and eager businessmen loved to spout Chindia-scented rhetoric replete with catchphrases that stated the obvious, but whose import was less so. China had the hardware, India the software; India needed China’s roads, China could do with India’s political inclusiveness. But given how fundamentally different India and China were, these kinds of “lessons learnt” were meaningless. An apple could not become an orange simply because a McKinsey report concluded it would be beneficial for it to do so.

Indonesia, on the other hand, was neck-to-neck with India on virtually every social indicator and governance parameter from infrastructure to sanitation. But despite, or perhaps because of, their similarities, New Delhi and Jakarta rarely bothered to cast an assessing eye across the Andaman Sea to take the measure of each other.

In Jakarta, the timbre of the quotidian was distinctly Indian. Regular demonstrations by everyone from workers clamouring for higher minimum wage to religious hardliners demanding the cancellation of Lady Gaga concerts caused massive gridlock on the roads; little retail shops selling every imaginable good from talcum powder to chocolate, sheltered in the shade of extravagant malls; the trans-Jakarta busway was like New Delhi’s Bus Rapid Transport system (but nicer); the colonial-style mansions and tree-lined boulevards in the central neighbourhood of Menteng had parallels to Lutyen’s Delhi; the call of muezzins punctuated the day; the warmth of petrichor hung over gardens, and women in burkhas shopped in stores assisted by mini-skirted sales staff. Away from the highways, not only did brightly painted three-wheeler scooters, reminiscent of India’s, ply the streets – they were in fact made-in-India by Bajaj (the term “Bajaj” is a synonym for the three-wheeler in Jakarta).

And everywhere – embedded in the language, on street signs, political commentary and bus advertisements – were references to the Hindu epics of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. My local mechanic was called Rama Repairs, and my neighbourhood shopping mall, Dharmawangsa Square. I discovered a nation-wide charitable foundation for twins called the Nakula and Sadewa society, and a support group for Indonesian women in mixed marriages named Srikandi (Shikhandi).

Buses were painted with large advertisements for an energy drink called Kuku Bima, which promised the imbiber Bhima-like endurance. One of the most congested arteries in the city center, Gatot Subroto, was named after a much-feted army general. An appropriate name it turned out as the name, Gatot, was a diminutive for Ghatotkacha, Bhima’s fearsome, half-demon, warrior son.

Wayang, a form of shadow puppet theatre wherein ancient stories from the Hindu epics are brought to silhouetted life on a screen, using backlit figures cut from raw buffalo hide, was a hugely popular form of entertainment in Java. Performances in rural areas could draw crowds of tens of thousands of people.

Fascinated, I began to read up on the art form. It transpired that the so-called Wali Songo – the nine 15th century Islamic scholars credited with spreading Islam in Java – had used wayang as a tool of proselytizing. The Islamic sultans of Java, the nation’s nationalist founders like Sukarno, and even military dictator Suharto, had used stories from the Hindu epics as a legitimizing political tool.

For Indonesians, the wayang repertoire is an indigenous part of their culture, and they have a real sense of ownership over the epics. In the mid-19th century, Ronggowarsito, a poet from the royal palace in Solo in central Java, wrote a history that traced the lineage of Javanese kings to the Pandavas, with the result that people came to believe that the epics were situated in Java, rather than India.

One evening, a year into living in Indonesia, I was returning home from a wayang performance in a south Jakarta suburb, when Pak Suharto, our driver and an observant Muslim, launched into a pedagogic explanation of an episode from the Ramayana that had been part of the show. He had joined me in the audience for the wayang and was agog with excitement. “I am too much liking Rahwana (Ravana) madam,” he’d grinned, taking his hands of the wheels, alarmingly, and holding up ten fingers. “Do you know that he is dasamukha? It means, he has ten heads.”

India’s long-lost sibling

Given its size and strategic significance, Indonesia is possibly the most under-appreciated country in the world. With 250 million citizens, it is the world’s fourth most populous nation and third largest democracy. Spread over 17,000 islands, if superimposed end-to-end on the map of Europe, the archipelago would span the distance from Ireland to the Caspian Sea. It is home to 719 languages, spoken by people from over 360 ethnic groups. Its fauna includes animals from both sides of the Wallace line (the elephants, orangutans and tigers of southeast Asia, and the marsupials of Australia).

Around 88 percent of Indonesians self-identify as Muslims, making the country home to the largest Islamic population in the world. The state, however, recognizes five other official religions, each with substantial numbers of adherents: Hinduism, Buddhism, Protestantism, Catholicism, and Confucianism.

Indonesians from Aceh on the northwestern tip of Sumatra (separated by nothing but sea from India’s Andaman islands), and from Papua, some 5,200km to the west, have about as much in common as a Manipuri has with a Tamil. Acehnese are Arab-influenced Muslim Malays who refer to their region as the “veranda of Mecca”. Papuans are black-skinned Christians and Animists, many of whom wear nothing but penis sheaths. Such diversity is reflected in everything Indonesian, from cuisine, to music, to nomenclature.

“Bhinekka Tinggal Ika” (multiple but one) the Sanskrit-tinged phrase that is the Indonesian national motto, is in essence identical to the Indian catch phrase of “unity in diversity,” and underscores the accomplishment of the two states in having woven together a unified tapestry out of immense plurality.


Politically too, India and Indonesia are like doppelgangers. Noisy rallies, demanding trade unionists, and a free and assertive press are part of the public landscape in both nations; a far cry indeed, from the annual meetings of China’s National People’s Congress that are usually orchestrated into rigor mortis.

As a journalist, it was as difficult for me to get my head around the bewildering complexities of Indonesian politics, as it must be for first time foreign correspondents in India. Over 30 parties had contested the polls in Indonesia’s last general election in 2009. Eventually, a shambolic, six-party coalition headed by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had come to power, but it was not having much luck in doing anything of significance.

Compared to India, Indonesia’s was a relatively new democracy. General Suharto’s three-decade-long dictatorship had only been dismantled in 1998. Yet, Jakarta felt like it had been separated at birth from New Delhi.

I moved to the city at a time when both Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Yudhoyono were in the final lap of their second terms in power. Initially heralded as potentially transformational statesmen, the leaders were nearing the end of their tenure as lame ducks, their credibility wounded by corruption scandals and their capacity to act hamstrung by their coalition partners.

Singh and Yudhoyono had seen their countries crest a wave of economic growth and foreign investment over the first decade of the millennium. Youthful demographics and an expanding middle class consumer base had caused cheering investment bankers to mark them as the economies to watch. But by 2013, these erstwhile darlings of foreign investors had been transformed into the whipping boys of Asian markets. Their once cantering economies slowed, leaving their governments with unappetizing current account deficits and plunging currencies to digest as their last supper.

General elections in both countries were scheduled for mid-2014. And the main electoral issues were largely the same: deep-seated corruption, infrastructural lacunae, yawning inequalities, unpopular economic reform, and religious intolerance.

Religious fundamentalism and communal atrocities in India were sadly familiar phenomena to me. However, I did not associate Indonesia with these. After all the country was regularly feted by world leaders as a beacon of moderate Islam. In 2013, the US-based Appeal of Conscience Foundation even awarded President Yudhoyono, a high-profile prize for promoting religious tolerance.

Meeting grim-faced human rights campaigner and journalist Andreas Harsono at a central Jakarta coffee shop one morning, therefore, came as a shock. “What we are seeing,” he said bluntly, “is a creeping Pakistanization of Indonesia.” Like Indonesia, Pakistan too, had been a relatively tolerant country until the 1970s, Harsono elaborated on this seemingly absurd comparison. But the situation there had changed dramatically in the 1980s, one clear manifestation of this shift being Islamabad’s 1984 anti-Ahmadiyya ordinance.

In Indonesia, the journalist continued, Suharto’s authoritarian regime (1967-1998) had largely suppressed religion’s role in politics for the first two decades of his rule. In the 1990s however, the general began to flirt with Islamists as a way of shoring up his power and diversifying his support bases away from the military.

Following the transition to democracy, Islamist political parties began to play an open, legal role in politics. Vigilante civil society groups operating outside the formal political system also sprang up. The latter include the notorious Front Pembela Islam (FPI), an organization that was set up in 1998 with support from government security agencies and whose goons use Islamic edicts to justify violent actions against bars and nightclubs, as well as Christian churches and the mosques of so-called apostates like Ahmadiyyas and Shias.

Harsono claimed that President Yudhoyono had not only failed to protect minorities, but also helped to lay down the legal infrastructure that discriminated against them, allowing Islamists to take the law into their own hands while the police looked the other way. He cited a 2006 decree that made it harder to obtain permits to build houses of worship for minorities, and an increasingly cavalier use of a 1965 blasphemy law, as examples.

Yudhoyono’s religious affairs minister, a hardcore Islamist, was the particular target of Harsono’s ire. I made note, but couldn’t help conjuring up a mental exclamation mark at the irony of this so-called “Wahabi” being named Suryadharma Ali.

Later that week I visited Bekasi, a suburb to the east of Jakarta, where a group of 18 Ahmadis had been holed up inside a fenced-off mosque for over two months. They had barricaded themselves inside after the local police had sealed it by placing locks on the entrances and erecting a fence of corrugated metal sheets. They were refusing to come out until the mosque was allowed to reopen and serve as a place of prayer for the area’s 400-odd Ahmadis.

A large local government hoarding placed outside the mosque referred to a number of anti-Ahmadiyya decrees and resolutions passed by religious and central governmental authorities. In 2005, the Majelis Ulema Indonesia (MUI), a coalition of Muslim organizations, issued a fatwa condemning the Ahmadiyya community as religiously “deviant”. Later, in 2008 a decree issued jointly by the Religious Affairs Ministry, Home Ministry and Attorney General ordered the Ahmadiyya community to stop all activities that “propagated” their beliefs.

Although none of these explicitly called for the sealing of Ahmadiyya mosques, the vagueness of the decree’s wording emboldened some regional governments, like Bekasi’s, to interpret the law as an outright ban on the practice of the Ahmadiyya faith.

The Ahmadis were not the only group to have fallen prey to intolerance. I met one evening with a diverse delegation of victims of religious discrimination. They had gathered in Jakarta from across the country to plead with the central government to uphold its own laws. Their complaints ranged from administrative inconveniences to intimidation, violence and even murder at the hands of radical Sunni Muslims.

Muhammad Zaini, a 22-year-old Shia from Madura in East Java spoke of 600-odd Shias being forced out of their homes from two villages in the area when a 200-strong mob of Sunni Muslims attacked their homes in August 2012. Several houses were burnt down and Zaini’s paternal uncle was killed. The Shias had subsequently moved to a refugee camp in a sports stadium. Local Sunni authorities had issued edicts against allowing them to return.

Reverend Palti Panjaitan of the HKBP-Filadelfia protestant church talked about the seven churches in the Bekasi area that had been forcibly closed or demolished by local authorities since 2005. Christian congregations across the country had been having a difficult time in recent years when it came to securing permits for the construction of churches.

Every time the reverend Palti’s congregation had tried to hold Sunday mass in Bekasi it had been disrupted by mobs of local Muslims insisting they disperse. “What can we do,” said the reverend throwing open his hands in despair. “Instead we come to Jakarta and hold our mass outside the Presidential palace, hoping that SBY [as President Yudhoyono is popularly known] finally pays us some attention.” While I was sympathetic to the church’s plight, my China-habituated self also couldn’t help but marvel at the freedom with which these disgruntled groups could protest and picket in Jakarta’s political center.

The similarities with India, where democracy has not ended illiberal or discriminatory behaviour, but has afforded those affected the right to march, were once again apparent. Cold comfort perhaps, but better than the absence of that comfort altogether.

Indonesia certainly couldn’t afford to be complacent about its achievements in having sustained a multi-cultural society. Sporadic religious riots and intolerant acts were a scourge. And predictably for a deeply devout country, democracy had played a complicating role in Indonesia’s attempts to ensure that minorities were protected from the excesses of the majority.

This was perhaps the central challenge that Indonesia and India shared: ensuring that democracy did not turn into the tyranny of the majority in a pluralistic society. India and Indonesia were fragile, yet inspiring, achievements. They were both polities that had eschewed theocracy as the basis for their nation building, yet allowed religion an active space in public life, unlike the “secular” European model. They were, as a result, trying to develop a third way, for countries where religion remained an important part of the identity of most citizens (unlike in largely agnostic Europe), but where the more exclusionary and intolerant aspects of religion were held in check.

India is a Hindu-majority country, the preamble to whose constitution asserts it is a “secular” state. However, neither India's constitution nor its laws define the relationship between religion and state. Instead, secularism is largely seen as the respect of all religions.

Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country whose constitution eschews the word “secular” all together. The founding doctrine of Pancasila that the constitution is based on professes a “belief in the divinity of the one God.” But, by leaving out a reference to any specific god (in the face of opposition from Islamists who had wanted a concrete mention of Allah), the Indonesian constitution also protects the right of citizens to freedom of religious belief and practice.

India and Indonesia - infographic


As India and Indonesia feel their way forward into the twenty-first century there are inevitably confusions about, and contestations of, their founding ideas. Conceptually they are both works in progress, rather than polished accomplishments. But this only underscores how germane their experiences, achievements, and failures are for each other.

Mirrored elections

By early 2014 the electoral seasons in India and Indonesia were nigh and I was startled at the similarities between the dramatis personae in the fray. Dynastic heirs, authoritarian strongmen, corporate tycoons and religious hardliners were par for the course in both nations. With their large and poor populace, corruption in the electoral process was a common preoccupation as well.

Pak Soharto, our driver and Ramayana pedagogue, giggled one morning as he recounted how he’d accepted IDR 200,000 ($20) from a political party to vote for its candidate. But he had no intention of keeping his promise. Without a trace of irony he explained that he was fed up with corruption, and planned to cast his ballot for another contender who had a clean reputation.

The electoral logistics in both countries were also mind-boggling. Transporting voting machines and ballot boxes along the thousands of volcanic islands that stretch over 5,000km from west to east in Indonesia was a feat bested only by India’s mammoth undertaking. Law and order challenges, particularly in restive areas like Kashmir and the Northeast in India, and Aceh and Papua in Indonesia, further complicated the task.

India’s general elections were a staggered, 36-day-long affair. In contrast, Indonesia had a two-step electoral process, which began with a combined poll for the national parliament and local legislatures, held on April 9. On that single day 230,000 candidates stood for elections to 20,000 odd posts, in which around 186 million people voted. Another poll to choose the President is scheduled for July 9.

Indonesia’s Presidential election is a face-off between two candidates that are starkly different in style and background. One of these is Prabowo Subianto, the leader of a new party – Gerindra. A former army general, and head of the Special Forces under Suharto, Prabowo stands accused of widespread human rights abuses. However, his supporters project him as a strong and decisive leader able to whip the otherwise chaotic nation into shape. The parallels to newly elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are obvious.

Modi is after all widely perceived as a development-focused strongman capable of transforming a corrupt, decadent India into an investment-flooded paradise. But many also blame him for allowing, if not abetting, the 2002 attacks against Muslims in Gujarat. Until his election as Prime Minister, Modi faced a US travel ban, a restriction that also currently applies to Prabowo.

But the candidate who might pip Prabowo to the post is a relative political newbie: the popular governor of Jakarta, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. Jokowi entered politics as recently as 2005, when he was elected mayor of Solo, a mid-level city in central Java. He lacks experience at the national level of government. However, he has risen on a wave of popular approval connected, in part, to his anti-corruption crusading. Jokowi is unassuming in manner and has consistently refused the usual trappings of power like an official car. He is most closely identified with his habit of blusukan – unscheduled, snap visits to local markets, slum areas and government offices to observe conditions

When put like this, the description might as well be about Arvind Kejriwal, the founder of India’s Aam Admi Party whose agenda developed out of an anti-corruption movement. Both Kejriwal and Jokowi represent a newly engaged electorate who sense the possibility of political renewal and a break from the tired, venal, dynastic politics of the past.

The similarities, however, end there. Kejriwal’s are a politics of disruption born out of his activist past. Jokowi on the other hand has a credible track record as a mediator and political bridge-builder. He is widely credited with having transformed the fortunes of Solo as mayor. His style is consensual rather than combative, and he operates within the Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan (PDI-P), the most established of Indonesia’s political parties. Perhaps the greatest difference is that Jokowi could well be Indonesia’s next president, while Kejriwal’s party was routed in the Indian elections, managing to win only a meagre four parliamentary seats.

The leader of Jokowi’s party is Megawati Sukarnoputri, the scion of independent Indonesia's founder, Sukarno. The party is in some ways Indonesia’s Congress. The identities of both the Congress and PDI-P rest on independence-era nationalism embodied in a family name – Nehru-Gandhi and Sukarno, respectively. The corrosive influence of political dynasty, where political office is treated as a hereditary piece of rent-generating real estate, is a cross that citizens of both India and Indonesia have borne.

The nomination of Jokowi as Presidential candidate however, points to the possibility of the PDI-P outgrowing dynasty. Jokowi is not related to the Sukarno clan, nor is he even a long-time party cadre. His electoral appeal is independent of the party, a fact that is known to disconcert Megawati. For months, in the run up to the elections, Megawati dithered, unwilling to name Jokowi as her party’s nominee despite the fact that every poll placed him as a clear front-runner.

The choice for her lay between keeping the PDI-P under family control and facing irrelevance, or allowing the party to shake free of its dynastic moorings to grab a real shot at winning a political mandate. This is a choice that is not unknown to India’s Congress Party. However, unlike the Congress which doggedly clung to a Gandhi even in the face of certain defeat, Megawati eventually bowed to popular will and announced her support of Jokowi just a few weeks before the April legislative elections.

If Jokowi wins on July 9, he will be heading a coalition government (the PDI-P has failed to win an outright majority in the legislative elections), a fact that will hamper his policy-setting freedom. It is also unclear how much influence Megawati will continue to exert from behind-the-scenes. Regardless, by nominating Jokowi, a genuinely popular, grassroots politician, Megawati has altered the landscape of Indonesian politics.

Given that the central question of India’s long-term political future is whether or not the Congress will ever be able to shed the Gandhi family, the PDI-P’s ongoing evolution could suggest relevant answers.

Comparisons, comparisons

During the years I reported from Beijing, articles comparing China with India were considered de rigueur by newspaper editors. Readers responded enthusiastically to these, either claiming them to be proof that India needed to find a suitably dictatorial leader in order to focus on Chinese-style development, or criticizing them by emphasizing how India’s democratic politics necessitated a different approach to China’s. No one, however, took issue with the fundamental act of bracketing India along with China, despite that fact that China outmatched India on almost every parameter of economic and social development.

But, when I began to write about Indonesia, I found that just the act of comparing the country with India was seen as profoundly insulting by many Indians. Being discussed in the same breath as China, a country whose political economy was on a wholly different plane, was flattering to India. Indonesia, on the other hand, despite being far closer to India on most development indicators wasn’t perceived as worthy enough to study, and certainly not to learn from.

When I made a passing comment on social media about how notwithstanding its geographic sprawl and law and order challenges, Indonesia managed to hold its elections on a single day, while Indian elections have consistently been drawn out to span an ever more absurd length of time, the reactions were furious. They also lacked any knowledge.

Indonesia is a tin pot dictatorship, some commented. Others claimed that unlike India it did not face issues related to electoral corruption. Still others wrote at length about how remote many areas of India were, which made it “unfair” to compare it to Indonesia.

Yes, India is indisputably more populous. But this does not necessarily make it more diverse or complex than a country like Indonesia. In any case, such nitpicking is superfluous. It was not necessary or desirable for India or Indonesia to directly copy each other’s choices, but surely their experiences could provide the other with food for thought: with hitherto unconsidered possibilities; with alternative ways of approaching common dilemmas, from confronting terrorism to balancing the needs of the economy and the environment.

A list of the most fundamental challenges confronting Indonesia today could just as well be India’s list: cleaning up politics and public life, harnessing the nation’s demographic dividend to productive use, fixing creaking infrastructure, maintaining nationalist ideals of respecting religious freedoms, and trying to find the right power-sharing equation between the center and provinces.

To anyone who knows China and India well, it is fairly clear that any hopes for an entity called “Chindia” are chimerical. But a closely intertwined India-Indonesia is historic fact. Long centuries of colonization and post-colonial autarky might have obfuscated this fact, but it remains, waiting to be rediscovered.

Pallavi Aiyar is an award-winning journalist who has worked as a foreign correspondent for over a decade, reporting from Indonesia, China and Europe. She is the author of the 2008 China-memoir, Smoke and Mirrors, which won the Vodafone-Crossword Popular award. Her latest book, Punjabi Parmesan: Dispatches from a Europe in Crisis, has been published by Penguin.