India’s domestic political situation has the potential to create a major foreign policy turmoil in the coming years especially from the least expected corners such as Indonesia and the ASEAN. If that happens, New Delhi may bid adieu to its eastward ambitions.
In March this year, the Government of India arrested several members of the Tablighi Jamaat congregation for violating the COVID-19 lockdown guidelines. Out of the 3,500-plus Tablighi members that were booked, 751 were reported to be Indonesian nationals.
According to a recent report in The Wire, over the past eight months, the diplomats from both countries have been trying hard to keep a lid on the possible consequences of the arrests on the bilateral relations of India and Indonesia.
Since the re-election of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in 2019, several of its domestic political decisions — the abrogation of Article 370, the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the release of a redrawn Indian map, amongst others — have had a negative spillover effect on India’s foreign relations. The Tablighi Jamaat issue is another addition to this list, which could have adverse ramifications on New Delhi-Jakarta bilateral relations.
Since its arrival in 2014, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has put a greater emphasis on its Act East Policy (AEP) and enhancing India’s cooperation with ASEAN countries. In this, Jakarta is a key gatekeeper given its status as the largest economy of Southeast Asia as well as India’s largest trading partner in the region.
Furthermore, the two countries share common collaborative goals in the Indo-Pacific — a centre of economic as well as geopolitical gravity in today’s times. There is also an upward curve in defence ties between the two countries as seen with the Sabang Port joint development and the recent agreement between the respective defence ministers “to expand defence ties and technology sharing“. Thus, irking Indonesia could cause a hindrance to India’s eastward act.
The arrest of the Indonesian nationals was the second time that a diplomatic tussle had arisen between New Delhi and Jakarta. Earlier in February, Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry had summoned India’s Ambassador to Indonesia, Pradeep Rawat, to discuss the Hindu-Muslim sectarian riots in New Delhi that had begun over the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Indonesia had been one of the first countries to publicly and diplomatically raise concerns over the riots.
It is imperative to note that Indonesia, with the world’s largest Muslim population, has — in the last few years — witnessed a greater emphasis on the Islamic identity in its polity. This re-emergence has seen a steady rise right from the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial elections, which were preceded by mass sectarian mobilisations by Islamists against the then Jakarta governor.
This had a trickle-down effect in and around the 2019 Presidential elections in the country, wherein incumbent Jokowi partnered with Islamist allies as he joined hands with the likes of Ma’ruf Amin (ex-head of Nahdlatul Ulama and the current Vice President of Indonesia), Prabowo Subianto (presidential rival and current defense minister) and the Muhammadiyah (supporters of Subianto’s candidature).
The summons to India’s ambassador in Indonesia had come amid a rising criticism and condemnation of the Delhi riots from two both NU and Muhammadiyah, the largest Muslim organisations in Indonesia.
The appeasement of the Islamists before the elections had helped Jokowi get re-elected as the President of Indonesia. He seemed to have had continued with the appeasement in a bid to clear the pathway for his economic agenda also known as Jokowinomics 2.0, the success of which was heavily dependent upon a recently passed omnibus bill on job creation. This contentious bill was overwhelmingly passed in the Indonesian parliament wherein Jokowi has managed to cobble up an alliance that controls roughly 74 percent of the country’s parliament.
The bill, whose passing and success has been noted as the real barometer of the success of Jokowi’s agenda, has a long way to go. While the administration and the bill face continuous opposition from labour unions and environmentalists, the Indonesian President would like to avoid any political opposition (especially from the Islamists) in the future. That can then distract the progress of these reforms and thus affect Jokowi’s goal of being the country’s next “Father of Development”.
In this context, any anti-Muslim measures or rhetoric by New Delhi and especially the ones which target the Indonesians will have the scope of pushback from Jakarta. While the recent pushbacks have been mild in diplomatic nature, the ones in the future can ignite a major diplomatic as well as economic tussle between the two countries.
A hit on credibility
The mechanism of a healthy bilateral relationship not only involves the head of states and the respective governments, but also the population of the two countries. In that regard, the credibility of a country plays a primary role. The Tablighi Jamaat case seems to have dented New Delhi’s credibility among ASEAN countries, and especially within Indonesia.
According to an ASEAN diplomatic source quoted in The Wire’s report, in the first few weeks after the issue erupted, the ASEAN members “constantly wrote and asked for information as per protocol” from the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). “But, it was clear that they themselves did not have anything to tell us,” the source added. This thus raises serious questions on the diplomatic maneuverability of the MEA and the latter’s position in the current Indian dispensation.
Further, the report goes on to mention some important discrepancies between the Indian and the Indonesian public statements on certain key events during this period.
In April, the Prime Minister of India held a telephonic conversation with his Indonesian counterpart. The official Indian read-out of the same mentioned that the leaders “discussed issues related to their citizens present in each other’s countries” without any mention of the Indonesian Tablighi Jamaat members. On the other hand, while referring to the same conversation, the Indonesian foreign minister told the local press that Jokowi had raised the issue of Tablighi Jamaat congregation with Modi.
The report notes two other instances — the ASEAN-India senior officials meeting of 15 July and the ASEAN-India ministerial meeting of 12 September — when the Tablighi Jamaat issue was informally discussed and not recorded in the official press release and the chairman’s statement, respectively. While the sources cited in the report confirmed the discussion of the issue in the 15 July meeting, the Indonesian Foreign minister herself briefed the media about the appraisal of the issue at the 12 September meeting.
This sequence of events and the glaring differences between New Delhi’s ‘tight-lipped’ approach to Jakarta’s outspokenness hints at a possible hit to the former’s credibility amongst the Indonesian public and the government.
India’s domestic political compulsions and decisions in the last eighteen months have invited an equal amount of flak and questions from the international community. This, in turn, has led the conversation in Indian foreign policy. Thus it won’t be wrong to say that New Delhi’s domestic political situation is affecting its foreign policy agenda. The results of the same seem discouraging, to say the least, and this has the potential to create a major foreign policy turmoil in the coming years especially from the least expected corners such as Indonesia and the ASEAN. If that happens, New Delhi may bid adieu to its eastward ambitions.