By N. Sathiya Moorthy
Every time Maldives is in an Indian discourse, question arises if the larger neighbour should go beyond incremental improvements in bilateral relations. In time of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the refrain should be to prefer ‘surgical strikes’, but of a positive kind.
The question arises if PM Modi should consider going ahead with his proposed March 2015 visit to Maldives when smaller neighbour was going through early signs of domestic rife. One and half years down the line, there is no expectation of a ‘better time’ to arrive on the Maldivian domestic front, after making a few things clear to his hosts.
Today, there is no hope of ‘normalcy’ returning to Maldivian politics before the November 2018 presidential polls. It could prolong, not get shortened, in the current course. By hind sight, a timely visit in March 2015 as part of the unprecedented four-nation Indian Ocean tour by any Indian PM could help matters even on Maldivian domestic front.
Conventional wisdom dictated that VVIP visits from foreign nations could be politically misleading. In India-Maldivian relations it has been more so. The Maldivian scheme also did not provide for toning down domestic content ahead of the planned Modi visit. It did not help matters, either.
As subsequent developments showed, a trial court in Maldives sat through the night on a Friday, a public holiday in the Sunni-Islamic nation, to pronounce verdict in ‘Judge Abdulla abduction case’. The court sentenced former President Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed to 13 years in prison, but through a controversial application of anti-terrorism act, ready to be replaced with a new piece of legislation. Had India stuck to the original plans, PM Modi would have been in Maldives around the time.
Even without the timing of the verdict, the domestic tensions arising out of the Nasheed arrest and a fast-tracked trial could have led to the choking of the narrow streets of capital Male, when the Indian visitor arrived. Already, there has been heightened reports of ISIS activities involving Maldivian nationals, though outside the country.
As independent Indian investigations showed, Maldivian ISIS activists had also been assigned to target American and Israeli diplomatic assets in the south Indian cities of Chennai and Bengaluru. For three or four years earlier, intermittent reports spoke of Maldivians fighting the terror-war against the US-led forces on Af-Pak border.
In context, question arises if India should seek to balance its larger and long-term interests in the region against value-based politics of the democracy kind, that is being continuously fought in Maldives. More importantly, an early Indian politico-diplomatic facilitation by India under the circumstances prevailing in the first quarter of 2015 could mean that the Maldivian domestic issues might not have blown up on the nation’s face.
Today, there are no winners in Maldives. Everyone, including India, seems to be a loser – at least over the short and medium term. The long-term is built on the gains/losses of the other two. The political Opposition, first confined mostly to Nasheed’s MDP, and more recently, Yameen’s PPM faction led by half-brother and former President, Maumoon Gayoom, have lost even more.
Yameen himself cannot claim to have won flatly. Gone for instance are the days when an incumbent leader in an ‘isolated’ nation in the Indian Ocean could hope to win successive elections without any serious competition. Gayoom did so for 30 long years. He lost when he lost touch with emerging GenX realities in the ‘communication era’ that did not leave Maldives alone or aside.
Yameen’s case is no different. He is now hoping to win the 2018 elections through a popular mandate based on development works that he has initiated. There is a lesson in neighbouring Sri Lanka, which Maldivians follow closely. Former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa went beyond the war-victory over the globally-dreaded LTTE, but his ‘development agenda’ could not still win him re-election in January 2015.
It’s not about who wins or loses the presidential polls or any other in Maldives. It’s about India’s own ‘national self-interest’. It can be achieved, and ever more successfully, only through two or three clear initiatives and positives. Broadly-speaking, it comprises issues of democracy, development and security/strategic concerns, not necessary in that order
All of India’s smaller neighbours near-eternally require development funds. As with democracy, the aspirations of their peoples are also increasing in this era of IT connectivity and social media. Hence, the need for successive governments in these neighbourhood nations to whichever source that is ready to fund their developmental aspirations.
India’s concerns are not about the neighbourhood nations’ initiatives and preparedness to accept development funding from wherever, whenever. It has clearly understood that other nations cannot afford to wait until India became economically strong enough to support their developmental plans.
Instead, India’s concerns are about the real intent of the funding party/agency vis a vis India’s own geo-strategic concerns in bilateral security concerns. India’s internal security is also an issue. In the Cold War era it concerned the US presence in the neighbourhood in more ways than one. In the post-Cold War era, it’s about China, which is more immediate a neighbour and also a threat.
Island for China
Only players have changed. In Indian context, positions and posturing have remained the same. If it was US seeking a naval base in neighbouring Sri Lanka during the Cold War era, now it’s about China extending and expanding its reach faster.
It’s another matter that India looked at issues with a differentiated approach, considering that it shared a 4,000-km disputed border with China, yet cannot expend continually on modernising and refurbishing its military and strategic defences. According to reports, India is the second largest importer of arms and armaments, next only to Saudi Arabia. The only consolation from the economic stand-point is that the Indian imports cost a third of the Saudi spending of $ 90-b plus in a few years’ time.
In Maldivian context, China is building the eye-catching Male-Hulhule sea-bridge, connecting the capital city to the airport-island. China had evinced interest in acquiring real estate on the Indian periphery. It succeeded in Sri Lanka and Maldives almost simultaneously.
Alongside negotiating to buy 80-85 percent of the stakes in the Hambantota port project in Sri Lanka, a Chinese company has been given a 50-year lease of the Feydhoo Finolhu Island in Maldives for $ 4 million. Interestingly, it’s the nearest uninhabited island to capital Male and the international airport, and was in the occupation of the police welfare company.
Feydhoo Finolhu is one of the 11 islands and two lagoons short-listed for leasing out, to promote tourism and other economic activities, according to Tourism Minister Moosa Zameer. From a Maldivian perspective, every Government over the past decades has sold the ‘family silver’ likewise to domestic or foreign entities to make the economy work.
The Nasheed leadership, promising to be different, did not do anything of the kind either. It’s anybody’s guess, how long this game would go one, or when it would end. But when the latter happens, Maldives could collapse as an economy, as it would have nothing more to look for, having got used to living of the inheritance far too long.
But it’s India that should be concerned, if not outright worried. It cannot stall Chinese or any other ‘economic intrusion’ in the neighbourhood without having the economic wherewithal, continuing commitment and extended vision of the self. If it came to that, it may have to make sacrifices nearer home, to ensure that the aspirations of the neighbourhood did not have to find external/extra-regional sources to fund their relatively smaller aspirations.
It also goes to the credit of China now, and of the US during the ‘Cold War’ years that they could use their diplomatic muscle to ensure that their ‘client State’, if any, in the Indian neighbourhood did not suffer international humiliation or harassment beyond a point. China does not care for democracy or human rights even in third nations of interest to its geo-strategic concern.
The US has made circumventing the same into a fine-art and making the rest of the world that it was right, whichever way it has chosen. Both have veto-votes in the UN Security Council (UNSC) that they do not think twice to use in favour of a nation, big or small, that they need as badly as the other way round.
India is not a member of the UNSC, and that’s again another grey area that the rulers in India’s neighbourhood are not always comfortable with. More importantly, India’s ‘commitment’ to the cause of ‘autocratic rulers’ in the neighbourhood, and/or arguing their case without losing space, foothold and ground in those nations, have remained unclear and unsure.
It’s another area that India needs to work on. Maldives is no exception. It’s one area from where India can begin working on, with all three or short, medium and long terms in mind. In doing so, India needs to consider if it would be satisfied with another piece of ‘real-estate’ in these nations, as is now being promised in Sri Lanka at eastern Trincomallee for developing a special economic zone, or would not want any third nation (corporate or government) to get involved, in such shady deals of whatever kind.