India has warned the Maldives that cancelling the GMR Group’s Male airport project before the legal processes have been exhausted will have “adverse consequences” for bilateral ties.

Asking the Maldives not to take any “arbitrary or coercive measure,” the Indian response followed Maldivian Foreign Minister Abdul Samad Abdullah’s expression of inability to revisit the GMR project, in a telephonic talk with his Indian counterpart, Salman Khurshid.

Mr. Abdullah told Mr. Khurshid that a Special Envoy of Maldivian President Mohamad Waheed will bring a detailed communication to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh justifying his government’s decision to terminate the contract, even as arbitration proceedings between GMR and the Maldives were going on in Singapore.

Mr. Khurshid reminded Mr. Abdullah of high level assurances given earlier about resolving the GMR tangle amicably and asked him to ensure the situation did not “go out of hand”, in a reference to the rabble rousing going on in the Maldives against the GMR project and cases of assaults on parliamentarians who have opposed the termination of the contract.

The Maldives Foreign Minister responded by assuring that there was complete political unanimity on good ties with India.

This position has left New Delhi in a cleft stick because it has to continue supporting the Maldives, from basics such as onions, sugar, flour and rice to stabilising its fiscal position, said government sources. On the other hand, New Delhi is under pressure to take a more “robust” approach, which could mean upsetting the delicate balance that is there at present, they added.

The extent to which the political situation has changed in the Maldives can be assessed from the fact that Dr. Singh became the first foreign leader to address the Maldives Parliament (Majlis) last year. Today the Indian High Commissioner is being called corrupt and asked to go back by a person in the President’s Secretariat (he was removed from his post but accommodated in another), said the sources.

They said elections next year could be the only way out because of the complexity of the situation – rise of well resourced right wing parties, economic downturn in the Maldives and its government’s efforts to paint the previous President, Mohammed Nasheed, as corrupt of which GMR is one spoke.

“The Constitution of Maldives does not permit mid-term elections. This is where the whole issue got stuck,” said the sources while pointing out that political violence, a slew of court cases and arrests and even the murder of a parliamentarian were the result of political jostling as several parties and individuals tried to get the upper hand.

While the GMR project has become the standard bearer of the downturn in India-Maldives ties, the sources apprehend that the government in Male, egged on by small but vociferous right wing parties, are turning their sights on reviewing most contracts and allotments made by the previous government.

This includes about 400 islands and creeks allotted over a period of three years by the Nasheed government to foreign companies as well as to its supporters. In conversation with South Block officials, Maldivian officials had complained how shallow reefs and waters were given to Mr. Nasheed’s supporters on the basis of a simple write up.

While anti-India feelings expressed in the Maldives are centred around the GMR project, New Delhi is aware the two basic causes are the fortuitous Maldives President. Mohammed Waheed is the rise of religious extremism, which is taking on Mr. Nasheed’s secularists and moderates in other parties. Many of those involved in small but highly articulate right wing parties have been educated in Madarsas in Pakistan, some on the Afghanistan border.

In order to dilute this tendency and expose prospective students from Maldives to strains of peaceful Islam, New Delhi is trying to put them in touch with Muslim religious leaders running educational institutions in India.

The sources said the Indian government would have to take all these factors into account while fashioning its response to the GMR cancellation. Till then, the official stand in New Delhi remains that the “situation is being carefully assessed.”

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