The President is at pains to put on a show and distract from tensions brewing in Indonesian society, with tea, fashion and veranda politics, Danau Tanu writes.

All seems fine in Jakarta … until you turn on the television. Suddenly, you think it might be mid-September 1965, the month leading up to an attempted coup d’état that culminated in an estimated half-a-million dead in Indonesia. Words like makar (overthrow), pelengseran (unseat) and memecahkan negara (breaking up the nation) are being thrown around in reaction to threats of another major demonstration. Meanwhile, a theatrical type of political strategising is coming out of the presidential palace: one that involves a lot of tea drinking.

Over the last two weeks, the Indonesian media has been engulfed daily with images of high-ranking politicians in shining batik doing the silaturahmi or silaturahim, which roughly translates into ‘paying a warm visit to friends and kin’. The media dubs it a ‘political safari’. President Jokowi is putting on a show for his opponents, he’s consolidating his power, they claim.

Things had gotten a little heated after 4 November when more than 100,000 demonstrators marched to the palace demanding an investigation into the Christian Chinese governor Ahok’s alleged blasphemy against Islam. Ahok was subsequently named a suspect by the police, to the chagrin of much of the international community that saw it as a step backwards for Indonesian democracy. Then came the threat of a follow-up demonstration.

The heads of the police and military, with glittering stars and ribbons covering their chests, stated over and over on camera that now Ahok had been deemed a suspect, there was no reason for another demonstration. But others kept fanning the fire. Fahri Hamzah, Indonesia’s deputy speaker of the House of Representatives, told a crowd that “the nation’s history experiences a wave of change every 20 years, it’s part of the timeline,” insinuating, as some believe, that it was high time Indonesia had another political change brought about by bloodshed.

The former president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), had also been accused of inflaming the situation days before by saying that the demonstrations would not cease until the end of time (lebaran kuda) if the demands of the protestors were not met. The violence of that night pushed Jokowi to declare that “political actors” were exploiting the situation.

Another demonstration seems set for December 2 to again coincide with Friday prayers. The demands have now been supersized. This time they want Ahok jailed. So Jokowi got busy doing what his Facebook cover photo says he does, “Work, Work, Work”, to undermine this threat by staging a show for the media.

In the opening act, Jokowi was pictured drinking tea and eating grilled fish with Prabowo Subianto, the Gerindra party chairman, on November 17 on the palace porch. “Silaturahim is a good tradition,” said Jokowi as he charmed the camera with his usual smile.

Then the pair, one in batik and the other in a white shirt and traditional black peci cap, rattled off a roll-call of nationalistic phrases, with Jokowi taking the lead: ‘The two of us are of one spirit. We are here for the sake of the Red and White [the colours of the national flag], for NKRI [the Unified Republic of Indonesia], for Pancasila [the five state principles], for the 1945 Constitution, for our Bhinneka Tunggal Ika [the national motto, “Unity in Diversity”]. … We are here to put our political differences aside because the unity of our country is priceless.”

Jokowi had visited Prabowo, his rival in the 2014 presidential elections, prior to the demonstrations to get him on side. They had ridden horses together in cowboy hats at Prabowo’s residence in Bogor, south of Jakarta. This time, Prabowo was invited to return the visit to affirm his support for the nation ahead of the possible follow-up demonstration. As Jokowi fixed his thinning hair, Prabowo agreed that visiting each other over grilled fish and nasi goreng was a good thing: “This is our culture – this sense of family, this atmosphere of friendship.” Then he spent the next few minutes repeatedly uttering phrases such as “unity”, “family” and “(maintain) a cool atmosphere”.

Meanwhile, the media churned out images of Jokowi inspecting the military. Unlike his army-trained political opponents such as SBY and Prabowo, he started his career as a furniture dealer. But he seemed now to be declaring that the military was behind him, so watch out.

The following day, the police and military traded their uniform hats for the civilian peci and went all out to support Jokowi’s tea drinking diplomacy. Hundreds of them dined with civilians at the site of the demonstrations and prayed for the nation’s safety. Then came the images of two of the major coalition parties meeting at former president Megawati’s residence. Instead of their usual stuffy jackets in stark lemon and bloodshot red, Golkar and representatives of Jokowi’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) wore shining batik in softer shades of their party colours doing the silaturahmi over tea.

Let us not underestimate Jokowi’s concern for fashionable politics. Since his days in Solo, Jokowi likes to wear shirts that match his running mates when campaigning. Once elected as president, Jokowi made the new cabinet dress down in plain white shirts for their first media appearance. The message: we’re here to work.

Soon, there was a revolving door of politicians making their way to the palace veranda to drink tea with the president. This veranda diplomacy was complemented by presidential visits to all arms of the military, from the Marines to the special forces and mobile brigades. Meals with various religious leaders sporting the same white robes and turbans as the demonstrators showed Jokowi’s support for Islamic groups. All this in the name of ‘cooling the overheated political temperature’.

But one person remains conspicuously absent from Jokowi’s tea parties – SBY. The latter is still awaiting an invitation, according to his spokesperson. At the same time, Jokowi seems exasperated with the hate speech spreading across social media, as he let slip to a journalist from Metro TV. In a country where fake news has always been a part of politics, social media activities may be reason for concern. Regardless of whether Jokowi’s show is aimed at the uninvited or at cooling down the social media users who are fanning the situation, what is clear is that the president has a penchant for saying the unsaid through tea and fashion.

Danau Tanu completed her PhD in Anthropology and Asian studies at the University of Western Australia on mobility and international education in Indonesia.