By Aniket Bhavthankar*
With invitations to leaders of seven countries from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and Mauritius for his oath-taking ceremony, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pulled off a diplomatic masterstroke.
However, over the period of one and half years Pakistan, Maldives and very recently Nepal have emerged as weak links in ‘Neighbourhood first’ policy, an important foreign policy formulation of the Modi government.
Cancellation of Modi’s visit to Maldives in March this year has wrinkled the bilateral relationship with this tiny island nation too. External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Male in the second week of October to hold the first joint commission meeting in 15 years, suggests that India is seriously reworking its strategy towards Maldives and neighours.
It is necessary to know a little background to understand the importance of Swaraj’s visit. India and Maldives were at loggerheads over President Abdulla Yameen’s attempts to victimize his political rival and former President Mohammed Nasheed.
On July 22, 2015, the Parliament of Maldives amended the Constitution which allows foreigners to purchase land within the project site, provided that they invest more than USD 1 billion. It is important to note that 10 Members of Parliament of the ex-president Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) had supported this amendment. The unease that China might make the most of this new land law has pushed the Indian government to take note and rethink her strategy towards Maldives.
New Delhi is worried as Yameen government has warmed up its relations with Beijing. India considers Maldives as the cornerstone of her maritime policy in the Indian Ocean and its participation in the Chinese led Maritime Silk route to connect Fujian province (China) to East Africa via South Asia has created ripples in the Indian policy circles. Hence, India has decided to engage ‘constructively’ with the Yameen government.
Within a fortnight after the passage of the amendment, Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar visited Maldives as a part of his ‘SAARC Yatra’. After his visit, India must have thought that it is necessary to have business with the incumbent Yameen government as popular support for Nasheed is on decline.
India’s move to shift her High Commissioner to Maldives, Rajeev Shahare to Denmark before completion of his tenure is considered as an attempt to reach out to the Maldivian government. Since then, the biggest achievement for India has been Swaraj’s travel to this archipelago.
Her visit revived the ties between the two neighbours at the political level. It is pertinent to note that the Indian Foreign Minister’s visit took place when both countries are celebrating 50th year of establishment of their diplomatic relationship.
Besides that, Swaraj sat with her Maldivian counterpart Dunya Maumoon to re-build their bilateral relationship through Joint Commission, which remained dilapidated for the past 15 years. They have worked out a framework for bilateral cooperation in a multipronged manner and in various areas. It is learnt that Defence and Ocean strategies were part of their discussions. Swaraj’s meeting also assumes significance as Maumoon is niece of Yameen and daughter of former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Swaraj has developed a good rapport with Dunya Maumoon as it was their second meeting within a month. They met recently on the sidelines of UN General Assembly.
Swaraj also met Yameen and exchanged views regarding diverse issues. Yameen told that Maldives will organize an Investment Forum in 2016. He further reiterated Maldives ‘India First’ policy. This is significant development as ‘GMR episode’ left some deep wounds on the bilateral relationship. They also discussed common challenges in the Indian Ocean. India is eager to win the confidence of Maldives in order to retain her status as net security provider in the Indian Ocean.
Counter-terrorism is a potential area of cooperation between two countries. The recent attack on Yameen by unknown group with suspected ties with Islamic State is an indication of growing radicalization of Maldives. In this context, Maldives invited Indian Forensic Specialists to be part of investigation of terrorist attack is a welcome development.
Swaraj’s visit is just a beginning as many long standing issues are yet to be resolved. Though India says that Swaraj raised the issue of Nasheed with Yameen but official record suggests contrary to this.
A press statement released by Maldives after Swaraj’s visit said that president stated that “his government will not tolerate foreign interference in domestic issues”. India claimed that reference to ‘foreign interference’ was not directed towards New Delhi and intended for bodies like UN and the Commonwealth.
India has not reacted to UN body’s ruling that said Nasheed’s trial had been “unfair”. Rather India just stated that “we expect this issue to be handled in accordance with laws and rules of Maldives”.
Swaraj’s visit raises an imminent question whether India is correcting her course in the neighbourhood? In the past the Indian policy was either to neglect or to micro-manage domestic affairs, creating vacuum in her relationship with the small neighbours, ceding space to China.
Recent episode over the promulgation of the Nepalese constitution reminds us that strong-arm tactics were surely going to be counterproductive.
Swaraj’s visit shows that India has avoided criticizing an incumbent government on public forums. Swaraj’s visit stresses that India is fine tuning its neighbourhood policy and trying to achieve ‘balance’. It will not poke its nose in every domestic aspect but at the same time uphold its own interests.
Swaraj’s visit to Maldives is an essential step to bring back bilateral ties on track but her visit also shows that India has to travel a long way to gain the confidence of her neighbours.
*Aniket Bhavthankar is a Research Associate at the Society for Policy Studies. He can be reached [email protected]