After the GMR fiasco in the Maldives, India needs to engage its neighbours in a mutually beneficial way

The Indian Ocean has been receiving a fair amount of, admittedly long overdue, attention in recent weeks, with Indian Navy chief D.K. Joshi surprisingly willing to protect India’s fair name and interests in the South China Sea. But with the waters far more agitated in India’s immediate vicinity, in and around the Maldives, the question that remains is: how far Delhi is prepared to go to protect its reputation in a region it has often asserted it is the leader of?

By December 8 morning, armed with justification by the Singapore Supreme Court, the Maldivian government of Mohamed Waheed had revoked the 25-year licence of the Indian infrastructure company GMR, to build and operate a new airport in the Maldivian capital, Male.

India’s External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid sought to distance the impact of the cancellation of the contract from the larger bilateral relationship, arguing that it was the prerogative of the sovereign Maldivian government to do what it wanted, and implying that there was a limit to which New Delhi could defend a commercial enterprise if it got into trouble, even if it were Indian.

Mr. Khurshid’s impeccable, if somewhat helpless, remarks are no doubt lifted straight from the best textbooks on diplomacy. More to the point, at this late stage in the dispute, there was little he could have done without exacerbating the damage already caused to the relationship. The Maldives is so polarised today, between the self-avowedly pro-India former President Mohamed Nasheed and the man who replaced him in February’s bloodless coup, current President Waheed, that there is no way India can appear to take everyone along without taking sides.

Irrespective of ‘isms’, friendships

For some time now India’s diplomatic practice has been geared towards the promotion of a tranquil neighbourhood, where relationships with rulers in those countries must be maintained irrespective of ideology or ‘isms’ or personal friendships.

National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon eloquently put forward this premise while delivering the Prem Bhatia Memorial Lecture in August 2011, when he veritably laid out a road map for the exercise of power. Actively working towards a “peaceful periphery” was on top of that list, he said, pointing out that India’s several challenges of poverty and disease and illiteracy were best dealt with by a nation undistracted by problems on its borders.

Then he added, prophetically: “To what extent we can become a net provider of security in the Indian Ocean and our neighbourhood would depend on how it contributes to India’s own transformation.”

So when the Maldives underwent its own “coup” in February this year — the Maldivian National Defence Forces moved to arrest Mr. Nasheed, who agreed to hand over power hoping to avoid a bloodbath — India recognised the new Waheed government within 24 hours. The Americans and the Chinese quickly followed suit.

China factor

New Delhi argued that the Maldives was far too important to have been left in a power vacuum, implying that the Chinese, India’s greatest rival, would have moved in to take India’s place if it had not acted immediately. Over time, New Delhi would acknowledge that Mr. Nasheed had, indeed, contributed enormously to securing India’s maritime borders by allowing a series of Indian radars to be installed on several Maldivian atolls and islands — a move former Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom had resisted forever — that were also close to Diego Garcia, an island in the Indian Ocean on which the Americans have had a base for decades. Most importantly, as the Chinese moved to expand their sphere of influence in the Indian Ocean, in Sri Lanka and the Seychelles as well as in the Maldives, India was able to gather a much better idea of what they were now doing.

Clearly, the swift recognition of Mr. Waheed’s government was motivated by the yearning for a “peaceful periphery.” Mr. Gayoom’s daughter, Dunya, was made a junior minister in Mr. Waheed’s government, in implicit recognition of the power and influence her father continued to wield in Maldivian politics. And when he reached a town in South India two months ago, accompanying his wife for health treatment, Mr. Gayoom was invited to meet the powers-that-be in Delhi in the hope that he would continue to push for the restoration of stability in the Maldives.

New Delhi thought it knew Mr. Gayoom; after all in 1988, when Sri Lankan terrorists had tried to overthrow the former leader, former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had ordered armed help for the Maldivian leader. Now in 2012, Delhi sought to play all sides — Mr. Waheed, Mr. Gayoom as well as Mr. Nasheed. The latter was hosted in the Indian capital a couple of months ago (at the same time as Bangladesh Opposition leader and former Bangladesh President Gen. H.M. Ershad), while Mr. Menon received Mr. Nasheed’s special adviser Ibrahim Zaki a couple of weeks ago.

Depending on whose side you’re on in this complicated Maldivian saga, the story unfolds accordingly. Mr. Waheed’s men say that Mr. Zaki was arrested on a faraway island some weeks ago because he was doing drugs — a bottle of hash oil was found on his person.

In his defence, Mr. Zaki told this reporter that he had travelled to this faraway island along with other Opposition Maldivian politicians to plot Mr. Waheed’s ouster. They had been in serious discussions all night on the beach, Mr. Zaki said, when Mr. Waheed’s security forces emerged from the water carrying truncheons and proceeded to beat everyone up badly.

Mr. Zaki is believed to have shown his bruises to Mr. Menon in Delhi, who had him sent to a local Delhi doctor for treatment.

Soon enough, the GMR contract had become the perfect instrument for Mr. Waheed to attack Mr. Nasheed, under whose dispensation the $511 million contract had been awarded to the Indian infrastructure major in 2010. In his meeting with GMR president on December 7, Mr. Waheed insisted that “no outside influence” had played a role in the cancellation of the contract, implying that the Chinese had nothing to do with the decision.

Mr. Waheed’s coalition partner, the radical Islamic Adhaalath party, obviously thought otherwise. Last week a party spokesperson tweeted, “We would rather give the airport contract to our friends in China, who now make the majority of our tourist population...With China already based in (the Seychelles), the addition of Maldives as a friend would be a massive blow to future Indian power in this region…. India would lose her reliance on our strategic location and global trade routes. We will seek the assistance of China in this endeavour,” the Adhaalath spokesperson said.

Official position

The official Indian position on the airport fiasco is that the legal process must be pursued to its logical conclusion. The Maldivian attorney general has already stated that compensation would amount to $700 million. Mr. Waheed’s government has said it will not pay a dime, but allow GMR three weeks grace period to leave the country.

As India loses this latest battle for influence in the Indian Ocean, it might be a good time for New Delhi to think long and hard whether it can paint all its neighbours, and the Maldives in particular, with the same brush. Whether or not Mr. Nasheed can be trusted, why Mr. Gayoom is trying to make a comeback and whether Mr. Waheed will be a credible candidate in the presidential elections in mid-2013 through his adroit challenging of India.

Above all, the biggest question remains: is this really India’s ocean?

(Jyoti Malhotra is a Delhi-based journalist.)

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