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A Tale of Two Rulers

Indian PM Narendra Modi and Indonesian President Joko Widodo shake hands at the East Asia Summit Source: Antara
Indian PM Narendra Modi and Indonesian President Joko Widodo shake hands at the East Asia Summit Source: Antara

Over one and half billion people live in India and Indonesia, two immense nations whose histories have long been intertwined. Last year, in a monumental exercise of democracy, nearly six hundred and ninety million voters went to the polls to elect new leaders in the two countries. In both nations, two challengers who were born in poverty emerged from outside the traditional elite — one a former tea seller, the other an ex-furniture salesman — campaigning on bread-and-butter issues and broader promises of equality and prosperity, with both ultimately scoring stunning, unprecedented victories. Meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Joko Widodo, the men who hold the keys to India and Indonesia’s futures, but have yet to find the lock.

When presented with a choice between a stagnant, corrupt political elite and an uncertain yet dynamic choice for a change in course, voters in the two countries decisively opted for the latter. In India’s month-long general election held in April-May 2014, Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) captured a majority of seats in the lower house, obliterating the long-ruling yet ineffective Indian Congress party. Running on a platform of reforming the economy, providing basic sanitation, and eradicating corruption, Modi spoke to the daily concerns of ordinary Indians rather than engaging in the staid vote-buying tactics of his opponents.

In Indonesia’s presidential election in June 2014, citizens decisively backed Joko Widodo, the then-Governor of Jakarta, over Prabowo Subianto, a former general with close ties to political and economic elites in addition to a checkered human rights record. Widodo, commonly known as Jokowi, represented a radical break from traditional Indonesian politics: born poor, he rose to political prominence by winning local elections—introduced in 1999 as a means of decentralization—on records of effective governance in Solo, a city in central Java, and the capital, Jakarta. Promising to extend free healthcare and education to all and to rid politics of corruption, Jokowi, like Modi, spoke directly to the needs and concerns of millions.

Fixing the Economy

Both governments unveiled their first budgets in late February, and they share striking similarities as well as differences. Modi plans to spend $12 billion on infrastructure spending, less than Jokowi’s pledged $23.2 billion, but both plan to finance this outlay largely through savings from fuel subsidy cuts made possible by  a decrease in global fuel prices. While Modi seeks to cut the size of government and decrease corporate tax rates, Jokowi’s budget includes almost $3 billion in investment in state-owned enterprises. The Indonesian President has promised free health care and education for all Indonesian citizens, a replica of his local programmes in Solo and Jakarta, but national health care spending has not risen from the 2014 budget. On the other hand, Modi’s plan lays out an ambitious tax reform that lowers corporate tax rates while increasing service tax, with the aim of spurring investment.

Despite the positives in the budget, however, Modi has so far failed to implement his flagship land reform bill, currently languishing in the opposition-held upper house of the Indian parliament. The bill aims to encourage investment and development by eliminating complex restrictions on land purchases for housing construction and industrial or military use. Under current regulations, these purchases require the approval of 80% of nearby residents and a favorable social impact study. The regulations have slowed and halted a slew of projects in the past, but critics, including the opposition Congress party, contend that the new rules would take land away from poor farmers and benefit rich investors instead. Modi issued an executive order bypassing parliament and approving the reform earlier this year, but the order expires on April 5, and the government’s rural development ministry will now issue its own decree to keep the law in place. However, that will eventually expire too, and Modi is no closer to convincing lawmakers to pass the unpopular measure in the upper house.

Power Struggles

Much like his Indian counterpart, Jokowi has struggled to overcome parliamentary gridlock. When he was elected, opposition parties that supported his electoral opponent Prabowo Subianto controlled 352 of 560 seats in parliament. A year after parliamentary elections, three of the opposition parties have splintered, with majorities in each joining the president’s coalition. Despite this, Jokowi is still held back by powerful interests within his own party, the Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle (PDI-P), especially its chairman Megawati Soekarnoputri, Indonesia’s only female former President and the daughter of the country’s founding father, Soekarno.

In January, Jokowi nominated a controversial commander as police chief, who three days later was named a corruption suspect by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK). The police retaliated by threatening to arrest the KPK’s two top leaders, sparking a national political crisis. Jokowi was left stranded between his grassroots supporters, who — like a majority of the population — supported the KPK, and the Indonesian political elite both within and outside his party, who opposed what they saw as the KPK’s overzealous drive. After a month’s wait in which he lost considerable popularity, Jokowi revoked the police chief’s nomination but also dismissed the KPK’s leaders, replacing them with “less daring figures” according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) researcher Andreas Harsono. Elected as a man who could take on Indonesia’s powerful and entrenched political elite to enact real change for the people, Jokowi failed in his first struggle against these vested interests.

Unlike his Indonesian counterpart, Modi wields almost total power within his party. However, even he has been forced to appease the Hindu nationalists of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a volunteer organization affiliated with the BJP. RSS activists have been conducting a campaign of mass conversions in which non-Hindus are “tricked” into participating in large ceremonies whose purpose is to forcibly convert them. In a country with 138 million Muslims and countless religious minorities, these involuntary conversions have inflamed tensions that Modi has been unwilling to defuse due to the RSS’ support for his political agenda. While he has pledged that his government will protect people of all faiths, Modi needs the RSS’ support for his land reform bill, and so must acquiesce to some of the group’s demands in return — for example, banning cow slaughter nationwide. The BJP has admirable goals for India’s future economic development, but yielding to divisive rhetoric and religious discord will only lead to a more fractured society and a dangerous environment for minorities.

Jokowi, a Sunni Muslim, has been far more successful at managing religious tensions in his own nation, as evidenced by his choice of a Catholic deputy mayor in Solo and a Protestant deputy mayor in Jakarta, despite a brutal election campaign last year in which he was accused of being a “closet Christian.” Regardless, HRW researcher Harsono says that Jokowi’s mishandling of the police chief nomination case “weakened the anti-corruption campaign” and that by controlling neither his own party nor the parliament he is “politically the weakest President in Indonesian history.” Although continued defections may hand him a majority in parliament, Jokowi will need to re-launch his anti-graft drive and establish command over his party if he is to achieve the vision for popular prosperity that won him his job last year.

The Best is Yet to Come?

Modi enjoys almost unchallenged power, but he has been slow to use it. Campaigns aimed at improving efficiency and reducing waste in the bureaucracy are laudable and should continue. Yet by hewing too close to the desires of his party’s base, the prime minister is alienating minorities, opposition voters, and the opposition itself, whose support he needs if he is to have any chance of implementing his ambitious economic reforms.

Both men face similar challenges — widespread poverty, unchecked corruption, and political gridlock, among a host of other issues — and both have another four years before voters return to the polls. For all the differences and similarities between the two  and the countries they lead, there is still much to be done to achieve the prosperous future that Modi and Jokowi espoused in their campaigns. The hopes of hundreds of millions rest on their shoulders, and the first steps forward have been taken; whether they will be able to enact their bold visions for progress remains to be seen.