By Rajiv Bhatia
Skilful management of relations with Maldives is an indicator of the success of India's South Asia policy.
South Block often faces criticism for neglecting the neighbourhood but, ironically, when it shows pro-activism to cultivate neighbours, critics tend to ignore its endeavours. A case in point is External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna's painstaking work. In recent months, he has helped in extending the arc of dialogue and cooperation through systematic visits to Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar. His recent trip to Maldives deserves attention because the skilful management of relations with this country is an indicator of the success of India's South Asia policy.
The Economist recently commented that India's dealings with its neighbours are “mostly driven by arrogance and neglect,” an evaluation that is debatable. The magazine added that of its eight neighbours, “only two can be said to be happy with India.” They are Bhutan and Maldives.
Maldives' angst: Located in the Indian Ocean, south-west of India, Maldives is a fascinating conglomeration of 1,200 islands and atolls, of which only 200 are inhabited. The nation faces an existentialist angst, not of the philosophical but real kind — of possible extinction due to the vagaries of climate change. The earth's warming and resultant rising sea levels mean that Maldives could disappear in a century or more, depending on which estimates are reliable. Maldivians, living at an average height of 1.5 metres above the mean sea level, experience the threat on a daily basis.
Soon after his election as President in 2008, Mohamed Nasheed began to draw international attention to the adverse impact of climate change on island nations. His decision to set aside a part of the national income for possible purchase of land that may serve as an alternative home for his people triggered a controversy, especially when it became known that three countries that may be approached are Sri Lanka, India and Australia. Nothing much seems to have come out of this initiative, but it has successfully highlighted the dangers experienced by the nation and the long-term perspective it is being encouraged to adopt.
Krishna mission: If Mr. Krishna discussed long-term cooperation on climate change issues in Male during his July visit, he chose to divulge little on this aspect. But what he did share with people was important. He conveyed to the Maldivian leadership that “a prosperous, democratic and peaceful Maldives” is in “our mutual interest” and that India remains committed to assisting it “in all possible ways.” Transmitting this message was necessary because New Delhi had enjoyed proximity with Maldives under M.A. Gayoom, who served as President from 1978 to 2008. Realpolitik was behind this, but the notable fact is that once Maldivians chose to usher in a genuine multiparty democracy, India was pleased to work with the new government and strengthen bilateral cooperation even further. Political relations have been consolidated through close consultations, regular high-level visits, and a consultative approach on a wide variety of international and regional issues. President Nasheed, a frequent and welcome visitor to India, has shown remarkable interest in deepening ties with this country.
Bilateral cooperation has been “on a high trajectory in recent times,” as the Indian side put it, with both sides engaged in a series of “comprehensive, forward-looking, pragmatic and mutually beneficial initiatives and projects.” Defence and economic cooperation represent two vital pillars of this multidimensional relationship.
Ever since 1988, when India took daring and speedy action to thwart an attempt by Sri Lanka's Tamil militants to overthrow the Gayoom government, much of the region has understood and respected the deep linkage between the strategic interests of India and Maldives. Over the years India has extended assistance in the form of equipment and training, measures designed to enhance cooperation between the Coast Guards, and help in undertaking hydrographical surveys in Maldivian waters. Cooperation to counter piracy and terrorism is on the rise. China seems to be taking a heightened interest in the Indian Ocean, raising its presence and profile in a sustained manner. It would no doubt like to increase its influence in Maldives. Keeping its latest plans and overtures in mind, the External Affairs Minister may have sensitised his hosts suitably and received credible assurances.
Economic cooperation: While strengthening economic cooperation, policymakers in New Delhi have to factor in the small size and vulnerable nature of the Maldivian economy. With tourism and fishing as the main sources of revenue and the country needing to import everything, it is not surprising that bilateral trade largely comprises exports by India. Investments by Indian companies have been increasing in sectors such as education, hospitality, renewable energy, health and waste management and marine products. India Inc's involvement has enriched the relationship, which has been dominated so far by government-funded projects.
Mr. Krishna announced a rich package of measures including renovation of the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital, construction of the Faculty of Hospitality and Tourism by 2015, establishment of a development finance institution, setting up of an Information Technology Village in Male, and promotion of Maldives as a film shooting destination. Another important step is to enhance connectivity through the launch of a passenger-cum-cargo ferry service between Kochi and Male by November 2011. Further, India would provide $40-million line of credit for the housing sector and $100-million as soft loan for a comprehensive economic development package.
Cultural bonds: India-Maldives relations go beyond diplomacy and economics. “Despite the high visibility of political and economic themes,” said Mr. Krishna, “it is basically the scope and depth of the people-to people relations at the ground level that ultimately determines the level and warmth of relations between the two countries.” Guided by this concept, fresh efforts are under way to impart momentum as is evident from the decision of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) to set up the Indian Cultural Centre in Male. One has to visit the country to experience how deeply India's music, dances, films and cuisine are popular with the people.
Maldives will host the next South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit in November, for which India is extending all necessary assistance. These efforts can perhaps be broadened by involving our youth. For example, a group of university students from Kerala and New Delhi should be drafted to serve as volunteers to help delegates. Most tourists to Maldives still come from Europe; this must change by developing attractive packages for well-to-do tourists from Indian cities. More efforts are required by our media organisations to step up coverage of developments in Maldives. To invest in raising awareness and interest within India about relations with our smaller neighbours is promoting self-interest, not altruism.
Above all, we should draw appropriate lessons from India-Maldives relations for the management of other neighbourhood relationships. Greater efforts and sensitivity — not just by the government but we as a nation — are certain to yield rich dividends. Without a friendly, peaceful and prosperous South Asia, India's ambition to be a great power may remain unfulfilled.
The author is a former Ambassador, with considerable experience in managing neighbourhood affairs in the Ministry of External Affairs.
Source: The Hindu, New Delhi