The recent developments in Maldives related to the GMR issue have received much attention in the media and policy circles. As specifics regarding the episode continue to emerge, two conclusions can be safely drawn.
First, the event caught Delhi by surprise. Much like the unrest in February this year that ousted Maldives’ first democratically elected government headed by Mohammed Nasheed and brought in Mohammad Waheed Hassan as the new president catching the S M Krishna-led Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) off guard, the November 27 decision by the Waheed government too came as a bolt from the blue for the MEA, headed by a new minister, Salman Khurshid. Till November 27, New Delhi had hoped that phone conversations between Khurshid and his counterpart in Male would be sufficient to deter Maldives from annulling the agreement with the GMR.
Second, it represented a climbdown from India. On November 27, MEA statements, in no uncertain terms, underlined that the decision by the Maldives cabinet would adversely impact the bilateral relations. The MEA had vowed to “take all necessary measures to ensure the safety and security of its interests and its nationals”. In less than two weeks, MEA’s valour had taken a beating. On December 10, the ministry hoped that the takeover of the airport by the government in Male would not affect the bilateral ties. Khurshid meekly wished that the incident “will not be used or allowed to be used by some fringe political groups that would lead to deterioration of relations between two”.
Apart from issues such as prudence of the government to wage a fight on behalf of a private company, the harakiri in Maldives is indeed a narrative on one of New Delhi’s most glaring problems in foreign policy-making—the inability of the MEA to evaluate unfolding events and strategise accordingly. Much has been written about MEA’s institutional deficiencies. In the MEA, Maldives is handled by a joint secretary, who also handles Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Obviously, with all three countries demanding his attention, little quality time is left for Maldives. It is not surprising that the last update of the ‘country brief’ on Maldives on MEA’s website (at the time of the writing of the piece) was in January 2012.
Even in the National Security Council Secretariat that advises the National Security Adviser, Maldives remains a neglected area of focus. An officer looking at 15 other countries is usually assigned to prepare an incident-inspired brief. None of India’s universities teaching international relations has an expert on Maldives. Not a single think tank, both government and private, in India, has produced a single policy paper on Maldives in the past years.
Products of this abysmal lack of knowledge, both within and outside the government in New Delhi, on a country that is an integral part of the South Asian community are incongruous conclusions on several aspects potentially impacting the security of India. For example, there is little knowledge about the penetration of the Chinese into the official circles as well as the political parties in Maldives. Little effort goes into documenting, let alone analysing, the continuous anti-India tirade carried out by the politically influential fringe groupings in Maldives. Similarly, growing role of Islamist radicals and Lashkar-e-Toiba cadres within Maldives’ mostly moderate Muslim population also belongs to the realm of the unknown.
In retrospect, December 8 ruling by the Singapore courts in favour of the Maldives government would have come as providence for the MEA. It provided a much-needed soft landing for the ministry’s lack of ability. After the ruling, Khurshid was quick to underline the “legal” basis of the problem and expressed helplessness of the government to do anything in the face of such a ruling. Interestingly, the minister appeared to overlook the determination of the Maldives government to go ahead with the airport takeover irrespective of the court ruling.
Given India’s historical as well as contemporary linkages, its economic influence and the sheer footprints Indians and Indian companies enjoy in Maldives, New Delhi’s diplomatic leverage over Male should have been the most authoritative. With a total strength of 28,000, Indians are the second largest expatriate community in the Maldives. More than one-fourth of Maldives’ 400 doctors are Indians. More than one-fourth of its teachers are Indian. MEA’s inability to strategise such strength appears bewildering, to say the least.
Elections are scheduled to be held in the Maldives in 2014. New Delhi hopes that a pro-India alliance would emerge victorious. With its existing levels of competency, however, it can do little if such hopes are belied.
This article appeared at The New Indian Express and is reprinted with permission.