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Opinion | Prev


Will Megawati be her own person?

Rasheeda Bhagat

TWO years ago, when Indonesia's presidentship was snatched away from her by Islamic zealots, for a number of reasons, not the least of which was her gender, she had burst into tears. But ironically, the coalition of Islamic parties which had rejected her claim to the troubled nation's presidentship, also because of her moderate views, has now eaten humble pie and supported her installation as the country's president.

There are mixed reports about the 54-year-old Megawati Sukarnoputri's personality, and even more confusing forecasts about how she is going to govern her troubled nation. Two definite indicators of the economy have given conflicting signals. While the ru piah soared 13 per cent following her swearing in, the stock market, which shot up nearly two per cent on the day of her swearing in, did a reverse turn the next day, falling about 2.6 per cent.

While it remains to be seen how biggies like the World Bank and IMF look at her regime, it cannot be denied that the presidentship was hers, if the people's mandate was to be considered, even 21 months ago. But the wily Abdurrahman Wahid outmanoeuvered h er claim and grabbed power. With his being unceremoniously and ignominiously ousted from power two days ago, she has finally been sworn in as the country's fifth President, and first woman President.

For the moment her predecessor has refused to vacate the presidential palace and she will have to wait a while before she returns to the home she had left as a 16-year-old girl, when her father Sukarno, the founding President of Indonesia, was dethroned by the military dictator Suharto.

The kind of trauma and violence the nation has seen in the last couple of decades is unprecedented. Many Indonesia watchers have blamed Ms Megawati for allowing the crafty Mr Wahid to deprive her of her rightful claim to the post of President.

They've also found fault with her for sitting outside the ring, with a sort of detachment and passivity, during the last 21 months of Wahid's troubled and lacklustre regime, and making no effort whatsoever to take over the reins of administration. After all her Indonesian Democracy Party of Struggle (PDIP), which was at the forefront of the efforts to oust Wahid, had won the 1999 elections with an impressive 34 per cent of the vote. It holds the largest number of seats in Parliament too.

But then, as her admirers point out, patience is her greatest quality. An article in The New York Times recalls that ``when she was still something of a neophyte six years ago, Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri spoke with wonder about the hard work of politics. T he most difficult thing to learn, she said, was patience. ``It's only human that I have ups and downs. I've had to train myself to remain clear and detached in the face of problems,'' she had said then.

``It is a surprising statement to read in retrospect. As every Indonesian now knows, patience is Ms Megawati's trademark. Patience, as one ardent follower said, is her shining quality. It is patience, after years of abuse and disdain at the hands of powe rful men, that finally won her the presidency,'' says the article.

At the time of swearing in, the woman who had remained a kind of passive Vice-President in the last 21 months, keeping her distance from the increasingly unpopular Mr Wahid, said: ``Democracy depends on gracefulness, sincerity and obedience to the rules of the game'', in an apparent dig at her predecessor, who just refused to step down, and had to be thrown out.

But Ms Megawati is going to need more than grace and sensitivity to provide decent and effective governance. Her coming to power, at long last, cannot really be claimed a victory for her gender because, like so many women rulers in our part of the world -- be it Indira Gandhi or Benazir Bhutto -- she too inherited the mantle from her father.

Unlike Indira Gandhi, she is not really considered a ``strong personality''. But then, the world needs to give her time to make an impact on the fortunes of the strife-torn Indonesia. After all, those who propped up Indira Gandhi in the late 1960s had th ought she would be nothing more than a goongi gudiya (dumb doll) who would dance to their tunes. History proved them totally wrong, and how.

While the world will have to wait and watch Ms Megawati's evolution into a leader who can make a difference to her country's fortunes and leave a stamp on its body politic, for the time being there is little expectation that she will really create any ea rthquakes. Be it in pursuing the path of economic reforms -- for lags in which the IMF has rapped Indonesia quite severely in the recent past, or controlling the military which has substantial clout in this fourth most populous country, or in combatting and containing corruption.

For one thing, she has an in-built weakness -- a close relative who has mega business interests. This is none other than her husband, Taufiq Kiemas, who enjoys considerable clout in the party too. Incidentally, he is her third husband. She was first marr ied to an air-force pilot who died in an air crash; then to an Egyptian diplomat.

We have seen too many women ruined by their relatives and friends. Benazir Bhutto had husband Asif Zardari, who is languishing in a Pakistan jail on charges of corruption, to blame for the nation's tainting her as one of the most corrupt rulers it had ev er seen.

Towards the end of her regime, the two were openly referred to as the Mr and Mrs 10 per cent, in a reference to the kickbacks the spouse charged for putting any deal through. Indira Gandhi's Emergency was marked by Sanjay Gandhi's excesses, not the least of which were exhibited in forced sterilisations. An important factor that led to Jayalalithaa's rout in the 1996 Assembly elections was the shadow administration run by her close friend Sasikala and the latter's family members.

Ms Megawati, who is seen as a ``conservative'' by reformists and a ``lightweight'' by intellectuals -- in fact Wahid made several derogatory and insulting comments about her intelligence in the last 21 months -- will certainly find it difficult to ensure that she and her government are not drawn into a controversy over her husband's business interests.

The New York Times article recalled this excerpt from her husband's interview to a publication two years ago. ``He played down his influence over his wife, telling an interviewer: I'm her husband but I can't push her around. If you try to pressure her sh e fights back. He added `If she were a political idiot I wouldn't have married her'!''

As all eyes turn on her, in the coming days she will have to prove that she is her own person and not propped up by this lobby or that. She will do well to derive strength from her patience, and put on the backburner the passivity she has displayed so fa r.

Whether it is fair or unfair, the voters who return a politician to power expect more integrity and above-the-board behaviour from the women they elect, compared to their male colleagues. Unfortunately, many women rulers have belied such expectations!

Apart from the integrity test, another test Ms Megawati will have to pass is standing up to the military and the police. Considered a `nationalist', she is expected to allow the armed forces to come down hard on separatist forces, and if human rights are violated in this process, so be it.

It is now up to Ms Megawati to disprove all these misgivings.

(Feedback to this article can be sent to rasheeda@thehindu.co.in)

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