With recent events in Maldives where the over-riding influence of India has given way to an uncompromising Chinese hegemony in recent years, India has got a taste of what Beijing can be up to especially in terms of asserting its naval supremacy. But it would set a bad example if New Delhi were to cave in to Beijing meekly and not assert its right to exercise due to influence in its backyard in an Indian Ocean state.
In recent times, tiny Maldives under Abdulla Yameen has been a picture of defiance against India. Right from the time the Maldivians replaced an Indian private company GMR with a Chinese firm in building and managing its lone airport to the directive to take away two Indian military helicopters leased by India to the spurning of India’s counsel to withdraw the state of emergency and release Opposition leaders, Maldives has cocked a snook at India apparently on Chinese tacit backing.
India has, now, again staked its prestige by asking the Maldivian government to restore the political process before it embarks on fresh presidential elections announced for September 23. That this would meet with a rebuff is a foregone conclusion though, of late, there has been a thawing of relations after Prime Minister Modi and Chinese president Xi Jinping had secret parleys to accommodate the Indian viewpoint.
“The announcement of presidential elections in the Maldives at a time when the democratic institutions, including the Majlis and the judiciary, are not allowed to function in a free and transparent manner, is indeed a matter of concern,” Raveesh Kumar, official spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs, said in New Delhi recently.
Reflecting the Indian government’s perspective, Raveesh Kumar said India was closely following the evolving situation in the country. “We have urged the Government of Maldives to return to the path of democracy and ensure credible restoration of the political process and the rule of law, before the elections are conducted,” he said further, adding, “It is important that a condusive atmosphere is created for holding free and fair elections in the Maldives.”
While this is fine for the record, how India will respond if its advice is ignored by the Yameen government is a moot point. There could, indeed, be further loss of face for India and a heightened escalation in ties. But India seems determined to have its say. Earlier, the brutally forthright Rajya Sabha MP Subramanian Swamy had disturbed a hornet’s nest when he said India must invade Maldives if the presidential election was rigged. India had sent its troops under different circumstances in the past once but, now, there is a transformed situation with the Chinese sitting as watchdogs.
Whether Swamy’s was a trial balloon floated at the behest of the Modi government is unclear but that India is keeping a close watch is a reality. Significantly, Swamy’s threat came after he had a meeting with Nasheed in Colombo at which the possibility was apparently discussed. The Indian foreign office predictably washed its hands off Swamy’s comment. Earlier, India had criticised the government for its incarceration of former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed, sentenced to 19 months in prison for an alleged plot to unseat Yameen. India called the trial a sham, saying the sentencing put a question mark on the credibility of the presidential election process.
Any Indian attempt at balancing the Chinese influence is frowned upon and Maldives is sensitive to any Indian moves to assert Indian big brotherliness. The Chinese have been helped in their wooing of Maldives by Indian miscalculations that allowed Indo-Maldivian ties to suffer setbacks. It was in March 2015 that Prime Minister Modi cancelled a visit in a show of disapproval of the treatment of Mohamed Nasheed, then in prison facing treason and terror charges.
Since then, India has called out many actions of Yameen’s government, including the conduct of polls, treatment of the judiciary and, in February, his declaration of a state of emergency. For the most part, these were legitimate Indian reactions but they came in the backdrop of Chinese approval of Yameen’s moves. Now that China has substantial stakes in Indian economy, the Chinese can be made to see reason so long as their strategic interests are not affected.
Reports say the stand-off between India and Maldives over the fate of Indian military helicopters leased to the island country could possibly be heading for a breakthrough. Talks are reportedly moving on a positive note with the island nation open to the idea of continued deployment of the military choppers along with their full complement of crew and support staff.
The choppers, one of which is operated by the Coast Guard and the other by the Indian Navy, are deployed on the strategically important islands of Addu and Lammu. The lease agreement for these choppers was signed in 2013 and expired the current year but Maldives expressed an unwillingness to extend the lease.
The Chinese Ambassador in India Luo Zhaohui told a senior Indian journalist that China was ready to have joint projects with India in Sri Lanka and Maldives also. The Maldivian envoy in India, Ahmed Mohamed, said in Chennai that like China, India, too, could undertake projects in his country. But he made it clear that the initiative must come from India.
So long as India continues to back Nasheed, Yameen would be suspicious of him. But India cannot abandon Nasheed unless Yameen wins a free and fair election under international observers. If the election results are not credibly achieved as seems likely, dissident elements in Maldtives would continue to depend on India for support.
(The writer is a political commentator and columnist. He has authored four books.)