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Islam and Politics ( 8 Feb 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Maldives: The Sea Change

By C. Raja Mohan

Feb 09 2012

The real test for Male and Delhi lies in preventing further destabilisation

India seems relieved that the internal crisis in the Maldives has quickly boiled over with the resignation of President Mohamed Nasheed and the relatively smooth transfer of power to his deputy.

It is too soon, however, for New Delhi to pat itself on the back for its behind-the-scenes role in ensuring that the political succession in the Maldives stayed within the constitutional framework of the newly democratic nation.

It is a pity indeed that Nasheed, the first democratically elected president of Maldives, could not complete his full term and had to quit amidst a revolt by a section of the security forces, which was preceded by prolonged agitation on the streets by his opponents.

As a genuine liberal democrat, Nasheed will indeed be missed, whatever his missteps in handling the galvanised political opposition. The real question is whether Nasheed’s progressive legacy can be preserved after his ouster.

The Maldives will indeed be lucky if the current political discontinuity does not produce long-term negative consequences for the island nation located at the heart of the Indian Ocean.

The new president of the Maldives, Mohamed Waheed, has promised an orderly transition by forming a national unity government that will steer the nation until next year’s presidential elections.

In his letter of congratulations to Waheed, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh offered India’s strong support for a stable and prosperous Maldives.

So far so good. But the real test for Male and Delhi lies ahead: in preventing further destabilisation of Maldives in the coming months.

Internal political fluctuations, however small they might seem, in the Maldives have the potential to trigger a sea change in the overall strategic equilibrium of the Indian Ocean.

Sitting astride the important sea lines of communication between the resource-rich Persian Gulf and Africa on the one hand and the world’s thriving industrial hubs in China and East Asia on the other, the Maldives’s geopolitical significance is in inverse proportion to the size of its population, estimated at less than 400,000.

Along with Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Seychelles and Diego Garcia (under the control of US), Maldives is among a few critical physical locations in the vast Indian Ocean, from which the flow of vital sea-borne commerce can be monitored, protected or disrupted.

Great Britain saw the Maldives as a critical link in the maritime communication between the North Atlantic and the Western Pacific, and built an airbase in Gan Island during World War II.

In our own time, as China’s strategic interest in the Indian Ocean has grown, Beijing has paid special political attention to cultivating a strong partnership with the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Seychelles and Mauritius.

Speculation that China is interested in developing a naval base in Maldives, as part of its so-called “string of pearls” strategy in the Indian Ocean, has always been a bit overstated.

But there is no denying the importance of the Maldives to the world’s two rising naval powers, China and India. Much more than Beijing, it is Delhi that has devoted considerable diplomatic energies in the last few years towards building a solid bilateral partnership with the Maldives and other Indian Ocean islands.

It is not a coincidence that the presidents of Seychelles (James Michel) and Mauritius (Navinchandra Ramgoolam) have both been hosted in Delhi this month.

India’s outreach to the Maldives has included assistance in improving the surveillance of its large territorial waters and massive exclusive economic zone. It has also focused on building up Male’s capacity to secure a nation comprising of nearly 1,200 islands.

India and the Maldives have steadily expanded their collaboration in the area of maritime security. When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited the Maldives to attend the South Asian summit last November, he signed with Nasheed a framework agreement for development and cooperation.

This treaty-like agreement has laid a solid foundation for long-term economic and strategic cooperation between Delhi and Male. Whether the two could build on that foundation would depend on internal stability and coherence in the Maldives so threatened by the latest turn of events.

Regime orientation, internal and external, could change quite rapidly in micro-states like the Maldives. As we have seen in the last few months, it did not take much to produce an internal upheaval in Maldives that pitted the president against the judiciary, the political associates of his predecessor, and the conservative religious sentiment.

Coping with internal turbulence within its neighbouring countries has always been a major political challenge for India. Given India’s huge stakes in the neighbourhood, stability and predictability will perdure as fundamental objectives of Delhi’s regional policy. What is not clear, though, is the appropriate diplomatic template to effectively pursue these objectives.

Should India take a hands-off approach to the political struggles within the neighbouring countries, in the name of non-intervention, and do business with whoever is in power, much in the manner that Beijing deals with our neighbours?

Or, must India distinguish between friendly and hostile forces in the neighbouring countries and back its potential partners to the hilt, right or wrong? Or, should India engage all political forces and focus on institutions rather than individuals?

Should Delhi support progressive political leaders and encourage democratisation in the subcontinent? Or, should Delhi forget the question of values in dealing with the neighbours?

These issues that Delhi has had to confront in dealing with the current crisis in Maldives will remain pressing in India’s engagement with the other neighbours in the coming months and years.

From the Maldives to Nepal, and from Myanmar to Pakistan, almost all our neighbours are in the middle of difficult political transitions. In Dhaka, the government of Sheikh Hasina has recently foiled a military coup and is facing growing political opposition.

There is no single formula for dealing with all internal crises in the subcontinent. What matters is Delhi’s ability to judge each situation on its own merit and the capacity to generate the appropriate response.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi

Source: The Indian Express, New Delhi