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How India missed the opportunity in the Maldives

February 17, 2012 12:44 IST

India's decision to fall back on an Islamic and authoritarian government to protect and promote its interests is a sad commentary on its neighbourhood policy, says T P Sreenivasan.

Mohamed Nasheed, elected in 2008 as president of the Maldives, the cluster of islands in the Indian Ocean off the cost of the Indian peninsula, was the first-ever head of State to hold a cabinet meeting under the sea to demonstrate the danger of his State disappearing as a result of global warming. But little did he realise that his tiny State had other more imminent vulnerabilities.

Nasheed, lost as he was in his quest for a global role, failed to attend to local and regional issues and gradually lost his mass base. He was reportedly contemplating resignation, but he claimed last week that he was forced to submit his resignation at gunpoint by the security forces.

His long-term friend and associate, Waheed Hassan, took over power. It did not take long for Nasheed to realise that Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the autocratic ruler of the islands for thirty years, who had lost the election, was behind his ouster.

The events that led to Nasheed's resignation are shrouded in mystery, but the fingerprints of Gayoom and Waheed cannot be erased.

Gayoom himself faced threats of coups in 1980 and 1983, not to speak of assassination attempts. In 1988, mercenaries from Sri Lanka arrived in the neighbouring Maldives to subvert his regime. The Indian Navy, whom Gayoom invited to deal with the situation, easily crushed the attempted coup.

In the first operation of its kind in its backyard, India asserted its supremacy in the region, which was acknowledged by the world.

It is widely believed that the assertive manner in which Rajiv Gandhi dealt with the crisis in Maldives in 1988 marked the emergence of India as the regional power. Subsequently, India's handling of the tsunami in 2004 and piracy in later years gave India a predominant role in the Indian Ocean.

But in keeping with his low profile style, Manmohan Singh decided to let the local events play out and adopted a containment approach in consultation with the US and Europe. He lost an opportunity to reaffirm the predominant Indian role in its own backyard.

India's neighbourhood policy has been a mix of assertiveness, reciprocity, benevolence and even concessions, basically aimed at keeping external forces at bay and enhancing influence.

It has, however, refrained from any kind of intervention for system or regime change. India has dealt with democrats and dictators alike to pursue its interests. Being the biggest and the most prosperous country in the region, India has been under tremendous pressure inside the regional organisation, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, SAARC, for unilateral concessions.

The situation in the regional forum is farther complicated by the manifestation of Pakistan's hostility in different forms. Exclusion of consideration of bilateral issues was a precondition imposed by India to enter the forum, but Pakistan has breached that understanding on several occasions.

The entry of external powers as observers in the association too has posed its own challenges to India. China's generosity towards the countries of the region shines in contrast with India's modest and modulated assistance programmes.

In the specific case of the Maldives, India's twin concerns are growth of fundamentalism, with the active support of Pakistan and the growing influence of China. Gayoom ran an Islamic State, but did not allow the Maldives to be over-run by fundamentalists and he maintained a certain distance from China.

At the same time, he maintained a cordial relationship with India, became a beneficiary of Indian economic assistance and provided a higher comfort level to India than its other neighbours. But, perhaps unknown to Gayoom and India, fundamentalist tendencies have been growing in the Maldives.

China's rise and assertiveness have caused concern to India not just in India's neighbourhood, but also in distant Africa and Latin America.

India is better equipped to deal with this challenge in its neighbourhood rather than in distant lands. But the events in the Maldives have enhanced the threat from fundamentalism as well as from China.

India had no role in the advent of Nasheed, but it had no qualms about working with him, particularly since his was a democratic victory. But by failing to advise him to focus on local issues and letting him fall has struck a blow to democracy in the Maldives.

India's decision to fall back on an Islamic and authoritarian government to protect and promote its interests is a sad commentary on its neighbourhood policy. By coordinating its efforts with the US and others, when India had the option to take an initiative, it has surrendered the regional domination it had asserted in 1988. It was by no accident that the Indian and the US envoys landed in the Maldives more or less at the same time.

India's options have narrowed down to encouraging Waheed to form a new unity government with Nasheed's participation, if possible. An immediate election has been ruled out. It is incumbent upon India to engage the various sections of the people and encourage the establishment of a democracy.

Gayoom's known inclination to appease the fundamentalists and Nasheed's claim that his ouster has strengthened Chinese influence on the islands should raise alarm bells in New Delhi. Timely intervention to strengthen Nasheed and to prevent his downfall was an easier option for India.

T P Sreenivasan is a former ambassador of India to the United Nations, Vienna, and a former Governor for India at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna.

He is executive vice-chairman, Kerala State Higher Education Council; member, National Security Advisory Board; member, India-UK Roundtable; and director general, Kerala International Centre.

You can read more of his writings here.

T P Sreenivasan