Has India lost the initiative in the Maldives?

Has India lost the initiative in the Maldives?

Male, February 10: By cold shouldering the Maldivian government’s effort to send a Special Envoy to New Delhi to explain the circumstances which led to the declaration of a State of Emergency and the arrests that followed last week, India appears to have lost the initiative in defusing a major crisis in its backyard as it were, writes P.K.Balachandran in South Asian Monitor. 

China has, with alacrity, stepped into the beach displaying a greater sense of urgency and initiativein a matter which ought to have been India’s concern and responsibility primarily as the regional power.

It is China, not India, which talked of the need to have a “constructive” international role in encouraging the warring parties to come to the table and talk. China has also set the basic parameters for outside intervention by stressing the need to respect the sovereignty of the Maldives.

Apparently, it is China which had taken the initiative to get in touch with India on solving the crisis, which had brought the Maldivian constitutional machinery to a grinding halt. It will take some effort and time on the part of the various stakeholders both within and outside the Maldives to put the broken constitutional system together again and get it functioning in the way which its authors had intended.

China has entertained the Special Envoy sent by Maldives while India had refused to give him an appointment citing the absence of the Foreign Minister and the busy schedule of the Prime Minister ahead of his departure for the UAE. China had also taken the initiative to get in touch with India while India was consulting the US. Prime Minister Modi having consulted US President Trump on the phone.

But India’s rebuff on the Special Envoy’s matter has left a bitter taste in the mouths of the Maldivians who say that it is clear as crystal that New Delhi does not want to talk to them, and that, in that context, engaging with China and Pakistan stands to reason and is perfectly justifiable.

In fact, early this week, Maldivian Special Envoys left for China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, where they would have been received with courtesy and given a patient and sympathetic hearing.

Nasheed Triggered It

The situation in the Maldives is now in a critical stage with the possibility of international intervention in one form or another due to the efforts of the internationally influential Maldivian opposition leader in exile, Mohamed Nasheed.

A former President of the Maldives and now the opposition’s mascot, Nasheed had rather brazenly asked for a “military-backed” Indian diplomatic intervention.

To justify this demand, and to allay any fears Maldivians may have about an “Indian occupation” as a result of his invitation, Nasheed recalled what India did in 1988. He said that inOperation Cactus of 1988, the Indian navy promptly withdrew after foiling a bid by Sri Lankan Tamil militantsbelonging to the Peoples’ Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE),to overthrow the then Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

Nasheed said that it is safe to seek Indian help because the Indians would do the job and leave as they did in 1988.

Though Nasheed’s demand, couched diplomatically as a “humble request”, has had no formal reaction from New Delhi, the Indian media and the “strategic experts” Delhi bristles with, are going to town seeking a military intervention a la Operation Cactus of 1988.

But the intervention these people seek is far from constructive or benign in its objectives. They urge intervention not because they have the best interest of Maldives and the Maldivians at heart, but only to assert India’ power vis-à-vis China which has gained ground in the Maldives since Abdulla Yameen was elected President in 2013.

As for New Delhi, despite its studied silence, it is clearly displeased with Male. But the Special Envoy would have told the Indian leaders how the Supreme Court’s procedures and it orders to release top opposition leaders and reinstate unseated members of parliament, bristled with illegalities. He would have shown how these moves wreaked of a deep and well-planned conspiracy to overthrow a legitimately established government.

The envoy would have urged the powers that be in New Delhi to see the issues legally and dispassionately and convince the opposition to be reasonable.

This would have given New Delhi a handle to play a constructive role in Maldivian politics and be of relevance to all stakeholders, a privilege it does not have now being partial to the opposition led by Nasheed.

New Delhi could have enabled the warring parties to come to a meeting ground and get them to thrash out the differences with its good offices.

Perhaps India was also put off by the Yameen regime’s decision to send Special Envoys to China and Pakistan also. India’s past behavior indicates that if it is to intervene, it would like to do it “solo”, without any other country alongside. It would certainly not like to be in the company of Pakistan and China. No way.

But then, by refusing to seize an opportunity to engage at the Maldivians’ request, New Delhi may have lost an opportunity to constructively engage with the Yameen government as well as the opposition, and prove to be a useful and effective mediator, a role neither China, nor Pakistan nor Saudi Arabia can play in the Maldives in the same way.

And despite its claim that it needs no mediator, and that it can solve its problems on its own, the Yameen regime needs a mediator.

China May Fill Vacuum

China, which is the Maldives’ only really useful friend, has said that international community can play a “constructive role” in solving the crisis, provided it does not abridge that country’s sovereignty.

Beijing may have used the visit of the Special Envoy to lay the foundation for such a “constructive role” for itself. China has the economic clout to play that role, given the fact it is contributing the bulk of development funds received by the Maldives from overseas.

China is modernizing Male’s airport, building a new township in nearby Huluhumale and constructing a bridge to link it with mainland Male.

The Chinese are the single largest group among tourists arriving in the Maldives, accounting for over 324,000 in a total of 1.28 million arrivals in 2017.

Apart from briefing the Chinese leaders about the situation in the Maldives, the Special Envoy would also have told the Chinese that it is extremely important to have the Chinese travel advisory lifted.

China’s travel advisory was unusually harsh standing in sharp contrast to the advisories from the US, UK and India. It had asked its citizens to “avoid” the Maldives “till the political situation stabilizes”.

According to sources in Male, this advisory has led to a spate of cancellations of Chinese bookings in resorts and hotels causing a great loss to the tourist industry.

China is believed to have issued a definitive warning because a very large number of Chinese take off for destinations abroad during the Chinese New Year observances in the latter part of February. Many would go to the Maldives too and Beijing has a responsibility to safeguard the life and limb of Chinese travelers.

The Special Envoys sent out to China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia would have assuredthe governments in these countries that there is peace and normalcy in Male and the resorts; that it is business as usual all over the island; and that their investments are and will be safe.

As the government has said, there is no curfew and no barriers to normal movement and business transactions. International travel writers had given the thumbs up for Maldivian tourism even as recently as Wednesday.

Lacking public participation, the Nasheed-led latest effort to overthrow Yameen may fizzle out but can surface again since the Western powers have a vested interest in keeping the movement alive.

Maldives would then become a plaything in the hands of the West and China, with India left to watch the game from the sidelines as a mere spectator.

(The featured image at the to shows the Maldivian Foreign Minister Dr.Mohamed Asim with his Indian counterpart, Sushma Swaraj)