Jokowi can learn from India’s Manmohan Singh

Patrya Pratama
Associate Researcher, Centre for Business and Diplomatic Studies,
Department of International Relations, Bina Nusantara University

If current surveys are to be believed, it is not an unreasonable presumption that Joko “Jokowi” Widodo will become the next Indonesian president.

However, we should remember that pundits and the general public were quite surprised when the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) declared him its presidential candidate in March.

Many people wondered why the PDI-P had dared to nominate someone from outside the Sukarno family for the national leadership post, although Jokowi’s popularity, it was understood, could potentially boost the PDI-P’s chances of winning the election.

The success of Jokowi’s presidential bid partly depends on how he manages the “dynastic” characteristics of the PDI-P, which revolve around Megawati Soekarnoputri as its main patron. Perhaps there are lessons Jokowi can learn from a politician from another democracy who has experienced a similar situation: India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Singh is completing his second term in office as the prime minister of India, which he won in 2004. As a technocrat who successfully reformed India’s economy in the early 1990s, Singh was unexpectedly appointed by Sonia Gandhi, the chairperson of the Indian National Congress (INC) Party — equivalent to Megawati for the PDI-P — as the prime minister after its coalition won the 2004 election.

The INC is highly associated with and traditionally led by the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, which is comparable to the Indonesian National Party’s (the PNI, which is the root of the PDI-P) close association with the Sukarno family. Being a relative political outsider, running a government while in the highly influential Sonia’s INC circle has proven to be a delicate matter for Singh.

In fact, in a recently released book, The Accidental Prime Minister, by Sanjaya Baru, Singh’s former political communication strategist, it was revealed that Singh could not even pick his own key cabinet members, including a finance minister, because Sonia’s circle had endorsed other candidates.

He even had to let credit for certain policy initiatives go to Gandhi’s “heir”, Rahul Gandhi, such as the rural employment guarantee scheme, which was instrumental in winning the INC’s second term in 2009. The book accused Singh of turning a blind eye to possible corruption committed by the INC politicians close to the Gandhis’ circle.

Putting differences in political systems between India and Indonesia aside, it is not unthinkable to imagine a similar scenario could happen during Jokowi’s presidency.

The signs are already there. Just take Jokowi’s lengthy process of picking his running mate in the upcoming election as an example.

Pundits says it is because Jokowi does not have full authority in making the decision. It is unclear whether it is Puan Maharani — Megawati’s own heir — or Jokowi himself who is taking charge (panglima) of the PDI-P’s presidential campaign. If he becomes president similar stories could emerge later in terms of cabinet appointments and key policy decisions, creating a situation similar to the one Singh faced.

So what are the lessons to be learnt?

We should be mindful that dynastic political parties, where top leadership usually comes from within a family such as the INC or the PDI-P, do not transform overnight into modern, competitive and open political organizations, just because their main patrons “appoint” outsiders to lead the governments.

Pradeep Chhibber (2011) explains that there are cultural and electoral reasons for the resilience of dynastic politics.

First, for electoral reasons, keeping the party’s leadership and power within the family circle maintains both the “brand name” appeal of the family and the party at the same time. For the PDI-P, the Sukarno family leadership is perceived as valuable to ensure the support of its marhaen (nationalist core constituency).

Second, for cultural reasons, maintaining dynastic character is seen as an essential identity that unites party cadres and veers away from the threat of factionalism.

Singh’s experience shows that when a political outsider such as himself tolerated too much pressure and demands from the dynastic circle, it made him an ineffectual leader.

Avoiding this scenario calls for many stakeholders to mitigate.

Jokowi needs to be mindful that while it is the general public whom he should prioritize, he can’t afford to alienate the Megawati circle (including Puan) as the PDI-P’s main patron. Moreover, this also calls for the seriousness of the PDI-P to further modernize its party by moving away from a dynastic model toward an open, competitive and merit-based leadership model.

Most importantly, it is a call for the general Indonesian public to keep engaged in the political process and remind his presidency that, as Filipino independence leader Manuel Quezon said, “loyalty to the party ends when loyalty to the country begins”.

this article was published by the Jakarta Post

The writer obtained a master of public administration from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and is pursuing an MPA degree at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).