For about three decades, Anwar Ibrahim has been seen as the man who was going to be prime minister of Malaysia. In that time, he has gone from Mahathir Mohamad’s deputy PM in the 1990s and being credited with steering the country through one of Asia’s greatest financial crises, to being jailed on charges of corruption and sodomy, widely perceived to be politically motivated, to now once again being in striking distance of the prime ministership.
In the country for a five-day visit, the leader of the ruling PKR (Parti Keadilan Rakyat) party, has faith that “India, despite any recent image of it as veering towards religious hardliners, remains a vibrant democracy, an example for many other developing countries and one of the most important nations in Asia”. But Ibrahim, who describes himself as “a very old India watcher and frequent visitor”, also believes that the foreign policy establishment, particularly the “civil service elites, want India to be seen only in the narrow terms of economic interest. Perhaps that is why New Delhi has been so silent on some issues like the Rohingya crisis in the neighbourhood. But India, as a leading democracy, must make itself heard on such issues, without the fear that its stand will allow others to rake up the Kashmir dispute internationally.”
In fact, with international relations being reordered in the light of the US retreating from Asia as a financial and strategic powerhouse, and the rise of China, Ibrahim believes that the ideas propagated by Jawaharlal Nehru and others like him must be revisited. “Nehru was right to bring up Asian concerns and ask for solidarity among developing countries to stand against the arrogance of superpowers. Regional groupings will be critical in the near future. While the global order today is very different from the end of the 20th century, the relations between ASEAN and India, as well as Malaysia and India can play a key role in ensuring stability,” says Ibrahim.
In his country, Ibrahim is seen as a moderate and reformist, two labels he believes have cost him dearly, including his time in prison. Now allied with his former party leader, who had turned foe and now ally again, Ibrahim minces no words about his tumultuous relationship with Mahathir. “Calling our relationship stormy is an understatement. But Mahathir has committed to reforms and to clean up the system. We had to come together to end the rule of Najib Razak and bring in the change and reform the country needs,” says Ibrahim, who will take over as PM in some months from the 93-year-old Mahathir.
Having witnessed religious hardliners in politics in Malaysia, Ibrahim believes that zealots of every stripe tend to do the greatest injustice to religion.
“Indonesia and India have the largest number of Muslims in the world. Both are democracies, both peoples are for freedom. In fact, it can be argued that where Muslims are a minority, they press more for liberal values.”
Ibrahim’s moderate stance, and that of the government he is likely to head, could well have a bearing on contentious bilateral issues like the extradition of preacher Zakir Naik, who is currently in Malaysia.
India and Malaysia have always had a warm relationship, he said. But “the current potential of the relationship has not been explored. Beyond tourism and medical education (a large number of Malaysia’s doctors study in India), we must explore and expand cooperation in sectors like IT and aviation. We must also expand cultural cooperation and ties, which are no less important,” according to Ibrahim, who says his focus — and personal interest — has been on Indonesia, China and India throughout his career.
India, in particular, holds a special place for Malaysia’s PM-in-waiting. Apart from his admiration for Nehru, one of his cherished memories is having an argument with Indira Gandhi when he was in his 20s. “I was in Delhi as part of a youth delegation and met Mrs Gandhi. I railed on about corruption, inequality and the decadence of our political systems — the words of a young man… But she treated me like a son and advised me to act to change things. That really left an impression on me.” Ibrahim’s first visit on his current trip was to meet Congress president Rahul Gandhi. The PKR leader is set to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi also, before heading to Bengaluru.