Friday, October 06, 2006

Revisiting Political Pluralism: India and Indonesia

In general term, pluralism means the affirmation and acceptance of diversity. The concept is used in a wide range of issues like religion, philosophy, science, politics, etc. In science, the concept of pluralism often describes the view that several methods, theories or points of view are legitimate or plausible. This attitude may arguably be a key factor to scientific progress. In politics it is popularly known as political pluralism.

Political pluralism is the affirmation of diversity in the interests and beliefs of the citizenry. It is one of the most important features of modern representative democracy.

Political pluralism is a participatory type of government in which the politics of the country are defined by the needs and wants of many. Political pluralism is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. In a politically pluralistic society there is no majority or minority and the basic ideas of government are seen through the ideas of individuals and groups to ensure that all the needs and wants of society are taken care of. Thus in a politically pluralistic society a tolerance and mutual respect for divergent thinking tends to develop easily as a way to accommodate the differences in aspiration.

Political pluralism is an effective form of running and governing a heterogeneous country. It allows the accommodation of the diverse aspirations that emerge from the diverse contituencies. However, for pluralism to function and to be successful in defining the common good, all groups or constituents must agree to a minimal consensus regarding shared values, which tie the different groups to society, and shared rules for conflict resolution between the groups. This minimal consensus on shared values acts as a unifying force amidst diversity. As such, mutual respect and tolerance become the most important values to keep political pluralism in place.

Mutual respect and tolerance will allow different groups to co-exist and interact without anyone being forced to assimilate to anyone else's position in conflicts that will naturally arise out of diverging interests and positions. Differences in social and personal values are engaged in a critical, but respectful, dialectic of reciprocal evaluation. Conflicts that might arise can only be resolved durably by dialogue which leads to compromise and to mutual understanding. Coercive action is used only when another mode of life or cultural expression causes harm, otherwise it engages in a dialogue of critical evaluation of different modes and expressions through persuasion. Thus, stable democratic principles, standards of life, consistent directives, vital and practical democratic norms, skills and traditions become the common features in pluralistic society.

Defining Common Shared Values

India and Indonesia are examples of pluralistic societies. People of different backgrounds (religion, caste, culture, language, ethnicity) are bound together as a single unit. While Hindus and Hindi speaking people are the majority in India, Muslims and Javanese speaking people are the majority in Indonesia. Other groups of people belonging to different backgrounds also live and share the space in both India and Indonesia. India and Indonesia are developing societies with political pluralism as its backbone.

Having diverse groups of people belonging to different backgrounds, it is natural for this kind of society to follow a participatory type of government in which the politics of the country are defined by the needs and wants of many. The government in these societies is built from the people, by the people, and for the people. And since the basic ideas of government in these pluralistic societies are seen through the ideas of individuals and groups to ensure that all the needs and wants of society are taken care of, the majority groups in India and Indonesia must willingly share an equal partnership with the smaller communities.

The differences in aspiration among the constituents in the society are accommodated equally to preserve the ideas of mutual respect and tolerance. At the same time, a minimal consensus on shared values, which tie the different groups to society, and shared rules for conflict resolution between the groups must be agreed upon by all the contituents so that to create a unifying force amidst diversity.

This affirmation and acceptance of diversity in India and Indonesia is clearly defined in their national Constitutions. In India, drawing extensively from Western legal traditions, the Constitution enunciates the principles of liberal democracy and elaborates the principles that reflect the aspirations of the Indian people to end the inequities of traditional social relations and to enhance the social welfare of the population. The Constitution has provided so much impetus toward changing and rebuilding society for the common good. It ambitiously wants to secure for all its citizens justice (social, economic and political), liberty (of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship), equality (of status and of opportunity) and to promote fraternity to assure the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the nation.

Furthermore, it agrees to follow secular and democratic principles as the minimum shared consensus. Secularism in Indian concept implies equality of all religions and religious tolerance; no official state religion; and that every person has the right to preach, practise and propagate any religion they choose. The government must not favour or discriminate against any religion and it must treat all religions with equal respect. All citizens, irrespective of their religious beliefs are equal in the eyes of law.

While democracy in India means that the people of India elect their governments at all levels (Union, State and local) by a system of universal adult franchise. Every citizen of India, who is 18 years of age and above and not otherwise debarred by law, is entitled to vote. Every citizen enjoys this right without any discrimination on the basis of caste, creed, colour, sex, religion or education.

Indonesia adopts similar position in this regard. To accommodate and to reflect the affirmation and acceptance of diversity in Indonesia, the Indonesia people agreed to a minimal consensus regarding shared values, which tie the different groups to society, and shared rules for conflict resolution between the groups in the form of Pancasila and the 1945 Constitution. Pancasila stipulates the five principles of Indonesia: Belief in God, Humanitarianism, National Unity, Democracy, and Social Justice while the 1945 Constitution elaborates these principles even further. With humanity and humanitarian concern as its core ideas, the Pancasila and the 1945 Constitution serve as the guiding principles for the Indonesian government and the people of Indonesia to live together in diversity. Its national motto is unity in diversity, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika.

With democracy, secularism, Pancasila, and humanitarianism, the people of India and Indonesia defined the minimal shared values among themselves in which all members in both societies must follow and respect. These shared values become the basis in which mutual respect and tolerance are shared and observed among the populace.

Political Pluralism in India and Indonesia

Political pluralism is nothing new for both India and Indonesia. It is a natural phenomenon in such pluralistic societies. Pulls and pressures from the different sections in the society become the norms of the day. Moreover, in a democratic and heterogeneous society in which every individual is equal before the law, he/she shares the responsibility to fill any missing gap in the society. Politically speaking, he/she has the equal share to lead the country and define the national policies for the shake of achieving better future, being ultimate in diversity. And to achieve this goal, he/she must always respect the minimal shared values and maintain mutual respect and tolerance towards others.

The Indian history of a participatory type of government in which the politics of the country that are defined by the needs and wants of many has been continuous barring the short period of dictatorship in the late 1970s. Ever since its independence in 1947 political pluralism has always been regarded as the most effective method to accommodate the diversity of aspiration.

Since representative democracy is observed and practiced religiously in India, political parties play an important role as the medium of communication between the system and the people. It acts as the unifying vehicle for the diverse aspirations that emerge among the different groups in Indian society. The Indian National Congress Party, the biggest national party in the early years of an independent India, acted as the unifying umbrella for the various groups to voice their concern and aspiration. The INC successfully accommodated the aspirations of the Leftist, the Centrist, the Rightist, the Secularist, the Regionalist and other groups. However, the mounting pressure from these diverse constituents forced the INC to split into different, competing political groups. As such, there is now the Congress Party, the BJP, the Communist Party of India, the Samajwadi Party, the AIADMK, the Trinamool Congress Party, the National Conference as well as various other parties of national and regional stature. They compete and cooperate with each other to create the current face of party politics in India: diverse, competitive yet constructive.

This transformation process of party politics in India is quite natural. It is very unlikely for such a pluralistic society to have a single unifying party to accommodate the diverse political aspirations. It is an opposition to the concept of political pluralism. The heterogeneity in the society compels the Indian people to accept diversity. Every single citizen of India has the same right and is equal before the law. Their political aspiration is also diverse and often times contradictory with each other. Some of them might even resort to the use of violence to achieve their goals. But with the agreed shared values in the form of democracy dialogue between conflicting factions in the society become the most effective means to durably resolve differences. Furthermore, with secularism as the core uniting value in India, the pulls and pressures of either Right or Left block is avoidable. It acts as a balancing platform for these forces. Selfless, visionary and charismatic leadership in the early years of an independent India had also given important contribution to the celebration of political pluralism. Together, this combined elements created a unifying track that balances the diverse groups in the Indian society. It helps the perseverance of the concept of unity in diversity. It also created mutual respect and tolerance between factions in Indian society.

Indonesia, on the other hand, has a different history of political pluralism. Even though the early days of the Republic witnessed the observation of a pluralistic society and the democratic principles, but there was an unfortunate deviation from these norms in the Republic for over three decades.

The first fifteen years of Indonesian independent was a witness to political pluralism at its best. The diversity of Indonesian society was accommodated and accepted as an unavoidable consequence for such a pluralistic society. With democracy and Pancasila, the formative years in Indonesian history was filled with the celebration of unity in diversity. Indonesia was built to be ultimate in diversity. The Leftist, the Centrist, the Rightist, the Regionalist and other groups were represented by their various hues and color in Indonesian society. The politics was colorful and the pulls and pressures from various factions in the society were very imminent. Mutual respect and tolerance was observed by these diverse elements in Indonesian society during this period.

However, it was this colorful representation of diversity and the mounting pulls and pressures from various factions in Indonesian society that unfortunately brought a dark history in Indonesian celebration of unity in diversity. Unlike in India, which has a continuous history of unity in diversity barring a brief dictatorship period in the late 1970s, political pluralism in Indonesia experienced a great set back when the curtain of diversity was closed and uniformity was being forced into the Indonesian society for over three decades by civilian leader as well as by men in uniform. During this period from the early 1960s to the late 1990s political pluralism in Indonesia was a mere lip service. The noble ideas of democracy and Pancasila were hijacked to suit the needs of those greedy personalities who claimed to be the champions of Indonesian unity in diversity.

Fortunately, under such a complicated situation, the curtain of diversity in Indonesia was finally re-opened in the late 1990s. With this new lease of life political pluralism is celebrated rigorously by the new generation in Indonesia. The present face of Indonesian politics is similar to India’s: diverse, competitive yet constructive.

The question now is: why India, a much larger, diverse, multi faceted society is capable of preserving its political pluralism rigorously and continuously whereas Indonesia, a smaller reflection of India, must learn the hard way to achieve what it gets today?

It is going to be difficult to answer the question above. But considering the facts explained in the beginning of this article, it would be interesting to conclude this article with some possible suggestions.

To begin with, India and Indonesia possess similar features as pluralistic societies but they have a strikingly different history. Even though the British colonial ruler in India plundered and divided the country into various, warring factions to suit its colonial interests, it somehow allowed the celebration of a limited civil liberty. It educated the masses in the hope of making it a “partner” albeit the lack of equality in it.

These colonial incentives opened up the door for establishing a united society out of diverse and contradictory elements. The presence of selfless, charismatic and visionary leaders in the name of M.K. Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Azad, just to name a few, contributed a lot of help in this process. At the same time, a unifying vehicle to accommodate the diverse aspirations of the people in the form of a political party, the Indian National Congress, added to the possible celebration of political pluralism in a pluralistic society like India.

Indonesia, on the other hand, experienced a bloody struggle against the ruthless colonial masters. The Dutch and the Japanese were no different: they ruthlessly ruled its colony for the sake of its own benefits without any real intention to establish an independent colony. Such incentives given by the British ruler in India was absence in the East Indies. Prominent nationalist leaders like Sukarno, Hatta, Haji Agus Salim, Mohamad Natsir, just to name a few, were charismatic, inspirational and visionary yet they were diluted with their personal concepts of Indonesia. A unifying political vehicle for the diverse interests in the society was also absent. How would it then be possible for Indonesia to celebrate political pluralism?

Indonesia did celebrate political pluralism amidst these contradictory facts. But in the absence of important features like the ones appeared in India, Indonesia succumbed to dictatorship and authoritarianism. Democracy and Pancasila as the minimal shared values were being failed and thus sending political pluralism into graveyard.

To revive and preserve newly found political pluralism in Indonesia, it is important for Indonesia to learn from the Indian experience. Even though the Indian experience is far from perfect, but it has been successful so far to accommodate the varying interests of its populace. The long tradition of mutual respect and tolerance along with selfless, charismatic and visionary leadership in the early years of an independent India proved to become important factors that helped in cementing the concept of political pluralism. Without these factors, I believe, it would be very difficult for India to accept the fact that India is a united entity made of diverse and contradicting elements.

In the end, if India, a country twice the size of Indonesia that has a much more complex and complicated constituents, can celebrate and observe political pluralism religiously, why should there be any difficulty for Indonesia to practice the same? I believe it is a matter of time for Indonesia to really respect political pluralism as a consequence of a pluralistic society.

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