The speed with which India abandoned Mohammed Nasheed and declared support for the successor government is bewildering.

In solitary confinement for about two years during Maumoon Abdul Gayoom's 25-year-long dictatorship in the Maldives that ended with free and fair elections in late 2008, prisoner Mohammed Nasheed was given one book to read by a considerate jailor. It turned out to be Raj Thapar's “All These Years,” the story of a woman and her husband, Romesh Thapar, both very much part of the inner power circle around Indira Gandhi, and a sensitive chronicling of the denouement of that power structure.

Perhaps, Nasheed, who went on to become president in the 2008 elections and was last week forced out of power by the Maldivian security forces, should pick up the book again as well as others, to learn how fallen democrats have reinvented themselves as well as their nations in the struggle against coups, attempted coups or other transitions to power “almost at gunpoint.”

From all the television coverage and newspaper interviews since he was forced to quit on February 7, Nasheed or “Anni” as he is known all over his island nation, seems to have decided not to go down without fighting the good, democratic fight. In a half-sleeved shirt and chappals, he has been walking around Male, the capital, undeterred by the beating he received at the hands of the security forces a few days ago.

Clearly, this is a moment in the history of the Maldives — with a population of 3,20,000 strewn across 1,200 islands — when it matters whose side you are on. You could argue, with an eloquent shrug of your shoulders, that the ongoing power struggle between the newly appointed President Mohamed Waheed Hasan and former President Nasheed is “purely an internal matter” of the Maldivians.

You could point to the lotus-eating nature of the Maldivian and debate whether the sun, sand and sea have contributed to paradise being lost or regained.

India misread the situation?

Or you could ask if India has misread the ongoing political struggle in the heart of the Indian Ocean, for the second time in the last four years. The first time was when India's former High Commissioner to the Maldives, A.K. Pandey, sent home reports on the eve of the 2008 elections that Nasheed and his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) were hardly a force and that India, a rising regional power, must be pragmatic and continue to support the still-powerful Gayoom and his outfit.

But as the MDP grew in size and force, India swiftly changed tack and A.K. Pandey was soon packed off and in his place was brought D.M. Mulay, who has handled the Maldives with deft grace these last few years.

One wonders, however, if it was his reports that contributed to New Delhi jumping the gun on February 8, when within a day of Nasheed's resignation, the Ministry of External Affairs issued a press release and none other than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also spoke to the new President, assuring him of India's cooperation in all matters.

The speed with which the largest democracy in the world abandoned, by all accounts, the youngest democracy in the world has left several people terribly bewildered. Was this the result of an accumulated pragmatism that runs freely in the heart of New Delhi's foreign policy establishment these days, especially as Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna is widely considered to be an absentee figure in this part of South Block?

Certainly, pragmatism has its benefits, and the art of foreign policy-making cannot be mixed with something as ephemeral as friendships, including with democrats. Certainly, too, the Prime Minister's special envoy to the Maldives, M. Ganapathi, a top diplomat in the Foreign Office, has told Nasheed when he met him on Friday in Male, that Nasheed and his family will be safe under the new dispensation.

But as Nasheed pointed out to this reporter, on the phone from Male, this assurance is hardly enough. Meanwhile, in India and abroad, people are watching to see if India, the most powerful country in the region, can ensure that Waheed stops the savage crackdown that the Maldivian security forces are continuing to heap upon Nasheed's hapless MDP supporters.

If all foreign policy is a function of national interest, then India must ask itself if the Waheed government is really an ideal partner in the Maldives, or if he is really a mukhauta or a mask of Gayoom. If Waheed is really Gayoom's puppet — certainly, the new President has not one party member in Parliament, nor any councillors; he has been unable to form his own Cabinet, leave alone a government of national unity — then India should be more than worried.

But New Delhi has already decided that Waheed's government is a legitimate one and that Nasheed's crisis is largely one of his own making. Government sources say that Nasheed was repeatedly asked by High Commissioner Mulay, even a few hours before he resigned, whether he needed any assistance from India, and Nasheed said no.

On his part, Nasheed — on whom the realisation is beginning to dawn that his friend and partner, India, has dumped him — points out that he “resigned” because he wanted to avoid bloodshed, which would have been inevitable if he had decided to resist. Surrounded by security forces, Nasheed said, he could hardly have asked Mulay for protection.

As delegations from the U.S., the Commonwealth and the European Union set up camp in Male to figure a way out of the crisis, the world is looking to India to lead. It has all the credentials to do so — in fact, some parts of Lakshadweep even speak Dhivehi, the national language of the Maldives — especially if it believes that the Maldives is a part of its South Asian sphere of influence.

Whether or not Nasheed returns to a jail, this time under Waheed, the simple question remains: will India grasp the immensely fragile moment at hand, ensure that peace and stability return to the Maldives and that fresh elections are held, sooner than later?

If it does, it will be setting an example to the regime not only in Male or elsewhere in South Asia, but across the Asian arc littered with authoritarian rulers of all colours. If not, it could be making its second, strategic mistake in this Indian Ocean island. This time around, though, the error could take much longer to heal.

(The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi. Email: jomalhotra@gmail.com)

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