Thanks to the rise of China as a military and economic power, several nations in India’s periphery and beyond have had to revisit their old and established external relations. With China unhesitatingly, in some cases, brazenly exploiting both its superior economic and military clout, smaller nations have had difficulty resisting its pressures. This, in turn, has brought quite a few headaches for India’s policy makers. Not long ago, India used to have cozy relations with Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Seychelles, Myanmar, etc. No longer, though.
Now, it is called upon to do tight-rope-walking even as these nations play the Chinese card to extract concessions and other benefits. Admittedly, in a number of cases already, the smaller nations have discovered at their cost the downside of falling for the easy money available from China for projects and development, with the lender flexing its muscle in insisting on humiliating terms. But, this is no consolation for Indian foreign policy mandarins who have failed to adjust to the new reality in the neighbouring countries, displaying a lack of sensitivity and appreciation of the altered environment and public mood. The case in point is the recent snub by Abdulla Yameen, the President of the Maldives. India’s strong reaction to the internal strife within that country has resulted in the incumbent regime virtually closing the door on Indians, with the denial of visas to those working there and putting those already in that nation on notice.
India’s hardly veiled criticism of the arrest and imprisonment of former President Maumoon Adbull Gayoom and Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed for an alleged plot to unseat Yameen has not gone down well with the incumbent regime. India has called the court proceedings against Gayoom and Saeed as a sham and questioned the legitimacy of the Yameen government. There is no denying that the circumstances under which Yameen seized power and stage-managed a popular vote were highly suspect, but whether India was correct in taking the high moral ground, abandoning realpolitik, especially when China was openly backing Yameen, is not clear. Nations protect their self-interest, not high moral principles in today’s highly competitive world.
Also, India does not have either the will or the wherewithal to undo the egregious conduct of one party in a naked power struggle. In this case, Yameen was a ruthless power-grabber, but a successful one who threw his rivals in prison and stage-managed their convictions. In 2012, opposition leader Mohammed Nasheed had to run for his life, with the Indian embassy offering him shelter. Traditionally, India and Maldives have had very close ties, but in recent years with the Chinese ready to take sides in the internal strife, Yameen has been thumbing his nose at India. His latest to return two special helicopters provided by India along with its operators and maintenance staff by the end of the month is a signal that he intends to rely on the Chinese for such equipment. Besides, he has clamped down on Indians employed in Maldives, not renewing their visas and refusing to grant fresh ones to those desirous to visit the country for work or travel.
The low-turn in the India-Maldives ties can be directly linked to the cancellation of the visit by the India prime minister in 2015 in protest against the rough treatment of Nasheed on trumped up charges of terror and treason. On the moral plane, India was right, especially when Yameen had also intimidated the judiciary and imposed a state of emergency to grab power. But such a moralistic stand had its costs, after Yameen succeeded in consolidating his hold on power. Besides, it is not that Gayoom while in power for nearly three decades was a paragon of democratic virtue, his government, too, was authoritarian showing scant respect for the Opposition and other critics. However, the Modi Government’s open and pubic support to the anti-Yameen leaders has soured the traditional ties between the two countries. The Maldives is a natural ally of India. We should seek to re-rail the relationship without being too fussy about the lack of internal freedoms in that country. India is now engaged in correcting its Nepal policy after fist reacting in anger when, after decades, that land-locked nation used the Chinese leverage to resist India’s big brother attitude. Refining ties with smaller nations on the basis of mutual respect and equality is an imperative following the rise of China.