Foreign policy making in a nation aspiring to be a global power of consequence is expected to become increasingly sophisticated as years pass by. In Maldives, however, New Delhi’s policies continue to display elements of infantilism. A series of blunders since the past one year pose the real danger of alienating Maldives for good.
Contrary to general perceptions, the Ambassadors and High Commissioners play only an outside role in foreign policy making. For the ambassadors making Delhi undertake specific projects and positions in countries of their residence has always been an uphill struggle. The joint secretaries in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) make or break policies, according to their own understanding and capacities. However, the position of ambassadors and HCs assume immense importance in specific countries where the MEA either has no on-ground wisdom or has only peripheral interest. Male was such a case in point.
India’s reaction to the coup that ousted President Mohamed Nasheed in February 2012 and brought in Mohamed Waheed was spineless. New Delhi assumed that the change in Presidency was a harmless transfer of power. That position has since been refuted by the statements made by the six senior defence and police officials in Maldives who deposed before a Parliamentary inquiry in January 2013.
Waheed’s ready acceptance by New Delhi vide a swift recognition extended by the Prime Minister’s Office had much to do with the ‘pro-India’ certificate he received from then Indian high commissioner Dnyaneshwar Mulay. Mulay wrote to the MEA that Waheed’s pro-India stand “is not in question” since he “has not missed a single function in the India House”. Ironically, the same Mulay, within months, came under attack from the Maldives government for his advocacy role supporting GMR. Mulay was sent packing from Male to New York as Consul General.
If Mulay’s assessment of the nature of the Waheed regime was all wrong, Delhi has not fared any better since his departure. All its actions ever since it refused to protect the interests of a private company, GMR, (although the MEA in its country brief on Maldives continues to flag GMR’s taking over of the Male Airport in 2010), resemble a crying baby syndrome, not that of a nation that wants to deepen its engagements with its neighbourhood.
New Delhi’s reactions in the past couple of months have included: freezing major aid promised to the country in the recent past, toughening visa regulations allowing only limited number of visas to the Maldivians seeking medical treatment in India, refusing the Maldives Foreign Minister to set up a meeting with the Indian Foreign Minister, and doing away with the special privileges accorded to the Maldivian vessels visiting Indian ports.
In the second week of January, the Indian High Commission went a step further to issue an 11-point list of grievances to the Maldives media. The HC accused the Maldives government of withholding the passports and restricting the travel of Indian nationals, refusing to renew visas in a timely fashion, exploiting Indian workers, and failing to investigate threat calls to Indian diplomats. While New Delhi’s new policy is all about fighting it out with the Maldives, it appears unaware that its actions have hurt even the pro-India constituents within the country.
In response, Maldives has tried playing the China card. In December, Minister of Defence and National Security Mohamed Nazim went to China where he assured the Chinese Minister of National Defence that Maldives was “willing to cement relations between the two countries and their militaries”. Maldives requested a soft loan of $54 million for an IT infrastructure project from China. The Chinese telecom equipment-maker Huawei Technologies has already signed an agreement with Maldives’ National Centre of Information Technologies to develop IT infrastructure under the ‘Smart Maldives Project’. MEA is yet to decide on its course of action after the Research and Analysis Wing filed a report in this connection.
Active engagement and not argumentative detachment needs to be India’s policy in Maldives. Former President Nasheed, who has consistently remained pro-India in spite of New Delhi’s indifference, has called for a caretaker government to oversee the Presidential polls due in the next three to six months. An election under the present regime, he justifiably fears, could be unfair and to his disadvantage. New Delhi must ensure that the polls are fair and not rigged.
Electoral victory for the pro-India Maldivian Democratic Party remains New Delhi’s only hope. Any other scenario would further push New Delhi’s already sinking influence in that county to the point of oblivion. And the Chinese would not miss the chance.
This article appeared in The New Indian Express and is reprinted with permission.