The Maldives angle

Print edition : June 13, 2014

President Pranab Mukherjee (centre) and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh welcome Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom (left), at the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on January 2. Photo: V. Sudershan

IT is November 10, 2011. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh meets Pakistan Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani on the sidelines of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit at Shangri-La’s Villingili resort. International news agencies and the media from India and Pakistan lap up each word uttered by both leaders in a press conference that follows. Soon after, Manmohan Singh meets Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. None of the mediapersons remain to take notes.

“You see, we are a Pak-focussed country,” explained Harish Khare, the Prime Minister’s Media Adviser, when this correspondent asked him whether India was bothered at all about the Indian Ocean region. “Nothing else matters,” he added.

Senior Maldivian officials and Sri Lankan politicians have often complained in private that their views are not taken seriously in New Delhi. Their uniform demand is for India to treat the region with the importance it deserves. Escalating piracy issues, fishermen’s troubles and poaching, smuggling, and growing demands from both governments that they be taken seriously mean that India cannot carry on with its “extra-time” diplomacy approach.

An assertive government in Male which has taken a leaf out of the Rajapaksa-authored handbook on diplomacy and plays India against China; increasing activities of Pakistan in the Indian Ocean region, including in the Maldives; and an Indian diplomatic effort that has at best been in firefighting mode ever since the beginning of the decade combine to pose a serious challenge to the new occupants of South Block.

The Indian Foreign office has repeatedly misread the situation since late 2011, when Maldivan President Mohamed Nasheed tried to counter an increasingly restive opposition with his style of mobocracy. Maldivian politicians cutting across party lines agree that the Indians, who are supposed to know the archipelago nation inside out, made some cardinal errors. Reversing them will take concerted efforts and time.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s broad philosophy, it says, is that foreign policy will be “guided through pragmatism and doctrines of mutually beneficial and interlocking relationships”. While not specifically mentioning any neighbour, the BJP “will engage proactively on our own with countries in the neighbourhood and beyond”.

India will have to “engage proactively” with the Maldives for its own good. There are three identified “gaps” in the Indian subcontinent from where India can be easily compromised—Gilgit and Darjeeling and the Maldives. Hence, the Maldives is of huge importance to Indian border control agencies. The tri-nation maritime cooperation that was signed recently is a good beginning. The security dialogue between India and the Maldives has been progressing well, and these talks have to be reinforced with periodic inputs after reading the situation on the ground. But, there appears to be no long-term view on where India-Maldives relations should be heading (the joke in South Block is that the Maldives, anyway, will not last too long owing to climate change).

India has to stop following the United States line on the Maldives and Sri Lanka and work on issues of common heritage and concern. Ever since Nasheed stepped down on February 7, 2012, India has merely reacted to situations. The U.S., the United Kingdom and even the European Union have tried to influence the events there since then. Apart from a series of meetings that officials and politicians have had with their Maldivian counterparts, nothing concrete has emerged to prove that India has managed to steer events in the Maldives.

There seems to be no reliance on checking India’s institutional memory on what the Yameen rule signifies. The sixth President of the Maldives, Abdulla Yameen is former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s half-brother, and most of Gayoom’s old-timers form part of Yameen’s Cabinet. Gayoom, who ruled from 1978 to 2008, was friendly with some of India’s finest Foreign Service officers, including Thomas Abraham Sr and Ranjan Mathai, the current Indian High Commissioner to the U.K.

There is an urgent need to increase interaction between the peoples of both countries. There is a demand to increase communication between Male and Kochi/Thiruvananthapuram/Minicoy. While the issue of increasing interaction between Minicoy and the Maldives is touchy—since Minicoy residents speak Dhivehi and are closer culturally to Maldivians—it needs to be done looking at the larger picture of a confident regional power catering to the sensibilities of people in a smaller country.

Analysts have pointed to the growing influence of Wahhabism in the Maldives. Security agencies are hence hesitant to allow any greater interaction between the Lakshadweep islands and the Maldives. India should rather look at the issue as something that could be handled if Maldivian youth were made aware of the opportunities for development. For this, India should encourage Muslim youth exchanges. Such programmes drawn up by the U.K. and others have made a positive impact on the country where all the citizens are Sunni Muslims.

The one touchy issue in the Maldives is that of Indian investments, particularly the GMR-led consortium’s airport project. GMR, which was operating the Ibrahim Nasir international airport in Male, was unceremoniously thrown out by the Maldivian government on November 27, 2012. The Maldives terminated the $500-million-plus contract (awarded to GMR by the Nasheed regime) to upgrade the Male airport and build a new terminal. Following this, GMR went for arbitration in Singapore seeking a compensation of $1.4 billion for the “wrongful termination” of a 25-year contract. The issue is still in court.

The Government of India will have to take a view on Indian investments abroad and not merely that of GMR. So far, the government has maintained that it has nothing to do with a commercial agreement between two entities and that clauses in the contract will have to be abided by.

Sitting back and watching its business houses being run down does not sit well with the image of a regional power; the U.S. has shown by example how far it will go to defend its investments. The big challenge facing Indian foreign policy then will surely be the support it can offer to protect investments made by Indian companies abroad. Going by local laws is one option. But a country that wants to play its “destined role in the comity of nations” should be prepared do more.

R.K. Radhakrishnan