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New citizen from India eyeing MP post in Indonesia

Garment and furniture manufacturer Vinod Kumar Agarwal left India for Indonesia to work in 1991 and became a citizen. -ST
Zakir Hussain

Sat, Jul 06, 2013
The Straits Times

Businessman Vinod Kumar Agarwal, 58, left India for Indonesia to work in 1991 and became a citizen five years ago.

Now, the garment and furniture manufacturer is a prospective parliamentary candidate for the Democratic Party of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in the Central Java IV district in the April 2014 election.

"I like Dr Yudhoyono's ideas and leadership, I love this country and its people, and I felt joining the party and hopefully representing it would be the best way to serve people," he told The Straits Times. He is not the first "new" Indonesian citizen seeking to contest a national seat.

Four years ago, German-born Petra Odebrecht, then 42, stood on the ticket of the small Democratic Renewal Party in Bali. She failed to make the cut.

But Mr Agarwal is the first Indian-Indonesian seeking to be a Democrat MP, and his stepping forward comes at a time when naturalised Indonesians, as well as ethnic minorities, are playing a greater role in public life.

"It's not completely unprecedented," Indonesia observer Kevin Evans, who runs the Pemilu Asia portal, tells The Straits Times. He notes that in the 1950s, Parliament had three seats each for appointed European and Arab MPs, and six seats for ethnic Chinese, although these were soon done away with.

Medan-born Indian-Indonesian Jaka Singgih was also elected an Indonesian Democratic Party - Struggle (PDI-P) MP for the Riau Islands from 2004 to 2009.

Today, several members of the national football team are former citizens of countries like Brazil and Holland; last year, former MP Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as Ahok, became the first Chinese to be elected deputy governor of Jakarta in a campaign marred by racial rhetoric.

Precise figures are not available, but there are an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Indonesians of Indian descent, mostly in cities like Jakarta, Medan, Surabaya and Bandung. Another 10,000 expatriates work in major cities.

Indian influence dates back to the Buddhist and Hindu kingdoms on Java and Sumatra.

Mr Agarwal, who was born in Lucknow to teacher parents, said he was struck by this legacy when he first came to Indonesia to work in 1991.

Two years later, he started a textile business in Solo, Central Java. He also married an Indonesian, who was a Democratic Party member, but they divorced before he got his citizenship. They have no children.

He regularly does community service, distributing supplies to residents in need, he added.

But observers say it will not be smooth for new citizens like him aspiring to be politicians.

Election laws do not discriminate between new and "old" citizens, and the only bar is that candidates for president and vice-president must have been Indonesian citizens since birth.

Those aspiring to be one of the 560 MPs must, of course, be fluent in Bahasa Indonesia.

Researcher Pandu Yuhsina Adaba of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences told The Straits Times that it will not be easy for Mr Agarwal as voters in his district, which includes Karanganyar, Sragen, and Wonogiri regencies, are fairly conservative and have rooted for either the PDI-P of former president Megawati Sukarnoputri or Muslim parties.

"At a time when the Democrats' popularity is slipping, he faces a very tough battle."

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