Narendra Modi’s first ‘foreign’ visit after coming to power has been to Bhutan and a very wise move it turned out to be.  His next visit will be to Japan which should be even more fruitful, considering past associations between the two countries.  Modi’s concern for recognising the importance of SAARC countries deserves applause.  It shows a certain amount of political maturity.  But shouldn’t he be concerned just as much with ASEAN countries – our eastern neighbours – especially Indonesia, not to mention the other equally important member nations of ASEAN?  Indonesia is India’s second largest trading partner within ASEAN increasing in trade volume from $6.9 billion in 2007-2008 to $ 20.1 billion in 2012-13 with the target of $25.0 billion set by 2015? While this figure may pale in comparison to the $100 billion set for Sino-Indian trade, the potential for growth remains for all to see.

What is more important, India has hardly any issue of major disagreement or conflict with Jakarta.  India is the largest buyer of crude palm oil from Indonesia and imports coal, minerals, rubber, pulp and paper and hydrocarbon reserves.  India exports refined petroleum products, maize, commercial vehicles, telecommunication equipment and a host of other items to Indonesia, including pharmaceuticals in bulk, apart from steel products and plastics. Prominent Indian companies in Indonesia are Tata Power, Reliance, Adani, L&T, Videocon, Essar, Aditya Birla, and State Bank of India to name just a few.  But what is significant is the high level of exchange that has been going on between the two countries.  Between 2000 and 2004, there have been as many as ten heads of state/government visits both ways which stand ample testimony to the intensification of bilateral ties. This exchange is something of a record that has seldom been noticed.

 As recently as March 11-16, 2013, a Goodwill Parliamentary Delegation of 10 MPs led by the then Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Kamal Nath visited Jakarta and Bali.  But consider this: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has visited Indonesia twice, once in 2005 and then again in 2011. Similarly, Indonesian President Yudhoyono has been to New Delhi thrice, including in 2005, as Chief Guest for Republic Day celebrations in January 2011 and later, to attend the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit in December 2012.  Significantly, during his 2011 visit, Indonesia and India signed several important agreements on Security, Trade and Investments, Connectivity and Cultural Cooperation.

Importantly, both leaders agreed to adopt a five-pronged initiative for strengthening the Strategic Partnership with the object of taking the robust multifaceted cooperation to greater heights.  Indonesia figures so little in our Indian media one believes for the simple reason that we have the best of relations and we have very little of nothing to worry about.  Indeed, relations with Jakarta should be a matter of pride.  In the field of education, Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) offers 20 scholarships every year to Indonesian students at undergraduate, post-graduate, doctoral and post-doctoral levels in 181 participating universities and educational institutions.  India has established a Vocational Training Centre in Jakarta and Aceh.  An IT laboratory was set up in West Java and handed over to the Indonesian Military Academy in May 2011.  In the field of Energy, an Energy Forum was created during the visit of President Yudhoyono in January 2011. The Forum is co-chaired by the Ministry of Coal from India and Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources from Indonesia.  Till date, over 500 trainees  from the Indonesian Ministry of Public Works have obtained post-graduate degree in M. Tech in Water Resources & Irrigation Management from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Roorkee.

According to information available, a Chair on Indian Studies has been set up in a Bali University and there have been many cultural exchanges between the two countries.  Thus in September 2013, a 26-member troupe from Shriram Bharatiya Kendra, under the aegis of ICCR gave several performances starting with one at the International Ramayan Festival organised by the Government of Indonesia.  It comes as a surprise to know that there are around 100,000 Indonesians of Indian origin, mainly engaged in trade and commerce and another 10,000 serving as engineers, consultants, Chartered Accountants etc, making Indonesia their natural home.

According to a 2013 BBC World Service  Poll, a large majority of Indonesians view India’s influence positively.  It is said that the Indian community is very well-regarded in Indonesia, many of them holding senior positions in local and multi-national companies.  For India, approaching Indonesia under several caps is entirely in line with its Look East Policy that was prioritised during P V Narasimha Rao’s Prime Ministership and has been carried forward since then.  Defence cooperation between the two countries isn’t quite as profound as some would like it to be, but this is a challenge that Prime Minister Modi should face – and the sooner, the better.  It should be a matter of pride that India has had the best of relations with the largest Muslim country in the world with India being among the first countries to provide assistance in relief supplies following the tragic tsunami disaster in 2004.  It was under Jawaharlal Nehru that close ties with Indonesia began; it must be under Narendra Modi that that relationship should fructify beyond our wildest dreams.

M V Kamath

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