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India and the Maldivian Malady

S. D. Muni is Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • February 15, 2012

    Maldives is not the first case of India’s fumbling and faulting approach to critical developments in its immediate strategic neighbourhood. Sadly, it may not be the last either. The sudden ouster of the popularly elected President Nasheed was termed initially by India as an ‘internal development’. Then quickly claims were made that India navigated the change as being ‘peaceful constitutional transition’. As the unfolding events underlined, the change was neither peaceful nor constitutional. Within 24 hours, India recognized the new President Mohammad Waheed Hassan Manik and Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh personally spoke to him assuring all possible support. When the situation turned chaotic with the massive turn out of Maldivians in support of the ousted president Nasheed who called this ‘transition’ a coup as he was forced to resign at the point of a gun, India decided to send a Special Envoy to assess the ground reality afresh. Why then New Delhi could not hold the recognition of the new President for a while until a proper assessment of the developments in Maldives could become authentically available?

    Whether one accepts Nasheed’s description of his ouster as a coup or not, there is little doubt that his resignation was not entirely a voluntary affair and the circumstances were created to force his exit. Three of Nasheed’s principal political detractors – the former president Gayoom’s Progressive Party of Maldives and the conservative Islamic formations, the Adhaalath Party and Dhivehi Quamee Party (DQP) – had joined hands in what they called as the ‘Coalition of 23rd December’ to oust Nasheed. They started agitations and protests against his ‘un-Islamic acts, corruption, autocratic functioning and mal-governance’. On the night of January 29, they met the then Vice-President Waheed and urged him to take over the functions of Presidency and called upon the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF) and the police to defy Nasheed and instead pledge allegiance to Waheed. The mutiny by the rogue elements within MNDF and police, which forced Nasheed to resign on February 7, must be seen against the background of this opposition activity.

    It is unfortunate that Nasheed, through his own acts of commission and omission, had facilitated the unity of his adversaries. Soon after coming to power Nasheed’s somewhat arbitrary style of politics alienated many of his parliamentary allies. His moderate approach to Islam was always an anathema to the conservative religious forces. The most arbitrary was his arrest of the judge of the Criminal Court, Abdulla Mohammad, on January 16 for the latter’s role in delaying the prosecution of corruption cases and the release of DQM Vice-President Jameel. Jameel had been detained for his relentless personal attacks on Nasheed. The arrest of the judge turned the entire judiciary against Nasheed. In mobilising opposition to Nasheed, others alienated by him earlier also contributed significantly. For instance, a Sandhrust trained colonel, Mohammad Nazim, sacked from the MNDF in 2009 had mobilized a section of the force and police to revolt against and defy Nasheed. Rising prices and declining economic prospects had fuelled public resentment against his government.

    At the root of the present political turmoil has been the simmering power struggle between Nasheed and his detractors, particularly the Islamist forces and the discarded remnants of the autocratic Gayoom regime. Politics in Maldives derives its financial sustenance mostly from the tourism sector where rich and powerful resort owners have a close nexus with political parties and their leaders. In order to consolidate his own power base, Nasheed had opened the tourism sector for greater competition. He had taken initiatives to bring more of the isolated Islands under the resort economy. Nasheed wanted to streamline the tax net to cover the rich resort owners. Through increased tax revenues, he wanted to compensate for the declining income from tourism due to the economic slump in Europe and America. This was affecting the entrenched and powerful resort owners who owed their allegiance to the Gayoom regime. Some of the corruption cases which the detained judge Abdulla was delaying involved these powerful economic vested interests. They funded the protests for the release of judge Abdulla and the resignation of President Nasheed. One wonders if Indian private financial interests are also involved in the Maldivian resort economy and its consequent power equations. The fact that the new President Waheed was in league with the anti-Nasheed forces is borne out by the new appointments made by him. Colonel (retd.) Nazim has been appointed as the new Defence Minister and the DQM Vice-President as the new Home Minister. Gayoom who was not in Maldives during Nasheed’s ouster is planning to return and has announced that he might contest for the presidency again. Waheed’s idea of a unity government seems to be aimed at rehabilitating most of Nasheed’s opponents and turning his ruling Maldivian Democratic Party into a marginalised component of the new power structure.

    India should have refrained from taking sides in this power struggle and quietly used its goodwill with the contending forces to avert the crisis when it was slowly building up. It should certainly have not pitted itself against President Nasheed who has been sensitive to India’s commercial and strategic interests, has taken India’s relations with Maldives to new heights, stands for the values of democracy, religious moderation and human rights that are strongly cherished by India and, above all, even though out of power, enjoys huge popular support . Nasheed publicly blamed India for misunderstanding the Maldivian situation. Following the visit of the Special Envoy, there are signs that New Delhi is realising its initial miscalculations and preparing to recast its approach towards the evolving situation in Maldives. India has, in tune with the demand made by Nasheed, asked for early elections. However, controlling damage done to the policy may not be easy, as India has lost considerable initiative and isolated itself somewhat. The US is not inclined towards early elections. Now the Commonwealth, under the British leadership, has come forward to investigate the nature of the power transfer in Maldives, whether it was a coup as alleged by Nasheed or a peaceful transition as claimed by Waheed. Much of the future action will be shaped by the outcome of this investigation. Even if this investigation upholds Nasheed’s view, it may not be easy to restore him to power as he stands alienated from the MNDF, the Maldivian political space remains sharply and bitterly polarised, and Constitutional institutions like the judiciary and election commission have lost their credibility. The task before India is to recapture the initiative, rebuild its rapport with diverse and conflicting political forces in Maldives and ensure that a friendly and cooperative order is stabilised in the strategically placed Indian Ocean neighbor.

    The Maldives situation has to be viewed in the wider regional perspective by Indian policy makers. Elsewhere in the neighbourhood also, discredited political forces are striking back. While in Pakistan, the army is using the judiciary and dividing civilian political forces to maintain its dominance, in Nepal and Bangladesh the army is being used as an ally by anti-regime forces in their respective political power struggles. The challenge before India is to make sure that it stands on the side of popular aspirations, democratic and secular values and representative forces in its immediate periphery. Any failure to meet this challenge will not only hurt its vital national interests but also embolden its rivals and adversaries in the region.