By Rajeev Sharma
Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai has just returned from his latest visit to Maldives (February 27-29, 2012) where he took forward the political process and continued India’s engagement with all parties concerned in the Indian Ocean archipelago which recently faced a near-coup situation resulting in change of government. Essentially, Mathai’s visit was continuance of diplomatic fire-fighting where India has actually messed up big time.
The official line taken by the Government of India is expectedly much different. The Ministry of External Affairs issued a press release on February 29 claiming that the representatives of all parties who met Mathai, individually and collectively, expressed the view that India had played “a very useful role” in taking the process forward as a facilitator and friend of the Maldivian people. This has to be taken with a pinch of salt as India continued to be a fence sitter as the then President Mohammed Nasheed committed errors of judgment one after another and sought Indian help when he was neck deep in trouble. Maldives is the second SAARC country which has witnessed fall of President after he took on the judiciary of his country. The previous example was that of Pakistan where President Pervez Musharraf had to bow out of office after he unsuccessfully locked horns with Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Choudhry. But Maldives is not Pakistan. Unlike in Pakistan India could have, and should have, played a more pro-active role in Maldives and nipped the crisis in the bud which India failed to do.
The MEA has claimed that Mathai’s Male visit threw up a broad measure of agreement with all stakeholders. All parties agreed to continue dialogue on the way forward including possible amendment to the Constitution and enactment of legislation for institutional reforms. All Parties recognized the need to undertake the necessary amendments and legislation within a quick timeframe in the People’s Majlis. Maldives’s new President Mohammed Waheed Hassan, in his concluding meeting with Mathai, reiterated appreciation for India’s assistance and support to the reconciliation process and expressed further potential outcome of the continued consultations while agreeing that India would continue its role of facilitator.
But the ticklish situation remains as Nasheed continues to sulk and has refused to join the national government. Though Waheed has agreed on the need for early elections and continue further consultations among all major parties under the rubrique of All Party Consultative Committee (APCC), no fresh dates of elections have been announced. Waheed does not seem to be in a tearing hurry to holding fresh polls. Nasheed demonstrated his power and his intentions on March 1 when his supporters squatted in front of Majlis – Maldives’ Parliament – and prevented President Waheed from opening Parliament. The incident showed that Maldives’ political instability is going to exacerbate. That all parties have agreed to look at India as a ‘facilitator’ in bringing about national reconciliation has endowed a big responsibility on New Delhi. It is also a key opportunity for India which it cannot afford to whittle away. But the Indian path is laden with more of thorns and less of roses.
A delegation of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) that visited Maldives on February 17 recommended that early elections should be held in the country and preferably within this year itself. CMAG had urged President Waheed to commence an immediate dialogue without preconditions. Having come in the wake of the visit of the Indian Foreign Secretary and the subsequent roadmap that President Waheed’s Office itself had made public, it was expected that discussions would be held among the principal political players in this regard and dates would be firmed up at the earliest. However, this does not appear to be happening.
At a rally organized by the “December 23 Coalition” on February 24, an alliance of religious NGOs and political parties led by former President M A Gayoom’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), President Waheed adopted a strident position on the issue. He declared that before declaration of a date for the elections, former President Nasheed should first establish the illegitimacy of the present Government. Earlier, Waheed had reacted to the suggestions of the CMAG by appointing his own Commission of Enquiry to go into the circumstances leading to transfer of power (events from January 14 to February 8).
The Commission is headed by Ismail Shafeeu, Minister of Defense and National Security in Gayoom’s regime. He had also said that the CMAG’s recommendations for international participation in such an inquiry were for the Commission to consider. In view of the volte face by President Waheed on the assurances given to the CMAG, the Commonwealth and foreign office as well as the international community is seriously considering sending observers to Male in order to oversee a smooth return to democracy by the convening of early elections. The international initiative has become urgent in view of what happened in Male on March 1 when the Majlis could not begin its scheduled session due to large-scale protests from Nasheed’s supporters.
India cannot afford to lower its guard in Maldives at a time when China has raised its strategic sweepstakes in this country and Pakistan too has become active. The Wahabi tremors that are already being felt in Maldives have accentuated the situation further. Any diplomatic blunder by India vis a vis Maldives will prove to be costly. If India were to display any diplomatic shortsightedness in Maldives, the results would be catastrophic. This will downsize India in its strategic backyard which is strategically located near busy, pirate-infested shipping lanes.