The mess in the Maldives shows that Indian foreign policy needs to focus more on improving engagement with South Asia

The situation in the Maldives today — former President Mohamed Nasheed is holed up inside the Indian High Commission seeking protection from what he believes are trumped up charges against him by a kangaroo court — is quite different from what happened in 1950 in Nepal, but it is worthwhile recalling the similarities.

All through the 1940s, tension between King Tribhuvan of Nepal and his Prime Minister, Mohan Shamsher Jang Bahadur Rana, had escalated because the Rana wanted Nepal’s Gurkha troops to join the Second World War on the side of Britain. After an unsuccessful attempt at dislodging the Rana regime, Tribhuvan sought refuge in India House in Kathmandu in November 1950.

Jawaharlal Nehru ordered that Tribhuvan, his son, Mahendra and eldest grandson, Birendra be given protection under the Indian flag. After a week, they were flown into exile in New Delhi and put up at Hyderabad House. Huge anti-Rana demonstrations broke out in Nepal, forcing Mohan Shamsher, the last Rana Prime Minister, to negotiate with Tribhuvan. The victorious King returned home after two months.

So when Mohamed Nasheed, the first democratically elected President of the Maldives, walked into the Indian High Commission a week ago, the alarm bell rang out in Delhi even though this was no repeat of the Nepal experience.

The hand of Gayoom

The Indian government has made it clear to the Maldivian government of Mohamed Waheed that Nasheed will stay inside the High Commission premises as long as he likes. That’s the first difference not only from 1950, but also from 2012, when Delhi declared that the transfer of power from Nasheed to Waheed — Nasheed called it a coup — was legitimate.

One year later, Delhi is being forced to reckon with the series of miscalculations it made last February. Clearly, India’s poor judgment calls and tearing hurry to recognise Waheed were the combined outcome of misreporting from the ground by its man in Male, as well as the fear that a power vacuum would have the Chinese rushing into the Maldives. The threat of Islamist resurgence was always at hand.

But Waheed turned out to be the man who bit the hand that fed it. Not only did he throw out GMR, the Indian infrastructure company that had already spent half of the $500 million that would cost to build a spanking new airport in Male, the Maldivian capital. It has now come to light that Waheed has also allowed Chinese tour operators to buy into 18 resorts in the Maldivian atoll, which has given India the jitters.

One year later, India’s understanding of the troubles in the Maldivian paradise seems to have been significantly transformed. There is some acceptance that Waheed is really the ‘mukhauta’ or mask of former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who is running the show from behind the scenes. So Nasheed was invited to an “official visit” to Delhi in early February, when he met National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon. Union External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid has been in touch with him and all the other actors in the Maldives. India showed some spine when it told Waheed that Nasheed should be allowed to participate in the elections on September 7, implying that he shouldn’t be arrested when he leaves the high commission.

So far, though, both Waheed and Gayoom aren’t biting. A second arrest warrant has been issued for Nasheed, with the court also asking what he’s doing inside the Indian High Commission. Meanwhile, efforts to impress upon Gayoom that India means business haven’t made much headway; it seems the ex-President just laughed it off.

Voting and sanctions

Officials in Delhi say they are waiting and watching, although it’s not clear for how long they can afford to do that. Certainly, the Indian government is not in favour of being seen to be exercising power in favour of the democratically elected Nasheed — unlike 1971, when it helped in the creation of Bangladesh, or in 1987 when it signed an accord to push for greater rights for the Sri Lankan Tamils, or even in 1988, when it intervened to prevent a coup against the selfsame Gayoom — and is hoping that events will play themselves out.

There is some talk of imposing economic sanctions on the Maldives, especially since the islands have a month’s supply left of food and other commodities but that talk is contextualised in the long term. The most immediate aspiration is to hope that the Maldivian Parliament will soon decide whether it can vote, by secret ballot, so that some of Waheed’s allies will, perhaps, turn against him.

Clearly, the government’s fear and nervousness stem from the criticism the rest of the region has often heaped upon it, as being a “Big Brother.” But the fact remains that much greater engagement with South Asia must become the byword for India’s foreign policy. India must constantly push the envelope in favour of each democratic player in every country in the region, whether it is Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan or the Maldives.

The problem is Delhi still seems unaware of the fundamental restructuring taking place in the Maldives, or if it is, it doesn’t seem to know how to leverage it. At the parliamentary oversight committee in Male in January, then head of military intelligence Brig. Gen. Ahmed Nilam described Nasheed’s ouster last year as a “coup” — 10 days later, he was relieved of his duties. The same fate befell the chief of police intelligence, Mohamed Hameed, after he criticised Waheed.

How can India arrest the deteriorating situation in the Maldives? Elections are in September, until which Nasheed certainly can’t stay inside its high commission premises. One way would be to have Waheed defer the court order against Nasheed until elections are held — let all Maldivians decide whether Nasheed deserves to be thrown into jail or not. Another would be to persuade Waheed to step down, thereby paving the way for a transitional government headed by the Speaker who also oversees a free and fair election.

The current crisis in the Maldives is also about the way India chooses to assert its own interest as well as the interest of the region. This is another test for a country who wants to be its leader.

(Jyoti Malhotra is a Delhi-based journalist.)

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