Maldives: India must wait and watch

Avijit Goel | Updated on February 14, 2018

An unfolding crisis Let’s play cautious REUTERS   -  Reuters

Male’s closeness to China and the socio-political clout of Islamic radicals can jeopardise India’s interests in the region

Since the outbreak of the crisis in Maldives less than a fortnight ago, Indian opinion stands firmly divided on the possible role India should play in its ‘regional sphere’ of influence. While some suggest gunboat diplomacy, aimed at donning the mantle of a regional giant and thwarting off Chinese inroads into this island country, others christen this action monumentally stupid and instead suggest mute spectatorship or the use of soft power mechanisms.

Both the camps however accept one harsh reality, that politically, Maldives, regardless of recent overtures has more of a “Look China” policy than an “India first” one. As though, Maldives (and the current dispensation) only has these two choices.

It’s surprising that in this unfolding saga, the narratives have only been focusing on China, their maritime silk route, securing our southern maritime borders, earlier instances of Indian intervention in Male, etc., while the elephant in the room is still evading attention.

Radical elements

The fact that Maldives is a vocal Sunni Islamised nation by now, with the highest per capita contribution from South Asia (and probably the world) to the ISIS forces in West Asia. (Reports suggest that there were at-least 200 Maldivians who joined the ranks of ISIS, which is 50 contributions for every lakh of population, by far the highest recorded).

The political class in Maldives has been as deeply fractured as unreliable with its strategic signalling. After 30 years of rule and poor governance by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (the coup d’état against him was thwarted by Indian forces in 1988), the Maldivians democratically elected a President for the first time in 2008.

Their first democratic leader, Mohamed Nasheed, was seen as too ‘liberal’ and ousted within just four years in office. Nasheed — the “Mandela of the Maldives” who spent most of his younger years in prison under Gayoom — was subsequently jailed for 13 years on charges of allegedly threatening a high court judge. Allowed to visit the UK for medical treatment, he was granted asylum in 2016. It’s important to note that Nasheed’s opponents in 2012, amongst other accusations, began portraying him as anti-Islamic and whipped-up religious fervour to unseat him. It worked.

Abdullah Yameen, the man who deposed Nasheed and the one in charge since 2013 (uncharitably called a geopolitical serpent by a few observers), has spent substantial time since 2013 cosying up to China and deepening relationship with Saudi Arabia. China has worked on the economy while Saudi has worked upon the ideology.

Saudi influence

Not that Yameen can be blamed entirely for it, but till a few decades ago, the islanders had never really distinguished between the Shia and Sunni sects of Islam; theirs had been a fairly laid-back interpretation, blending island traditions and Islam. However, now the only Islam accepted there is Saudi Salafism.

The constitution clearly states that the President of the country can only be a Sunni Muslim. Apart from funding the grand Islamic University in Male and the numerous projects and mosques, Saudi investments serve as a key economic and ideological bridge.

The airport development contract was given out to Saudi’s Binladin group, after India’s infra behemoth, GMR, was unceremoniously shunted out. Maldives, despite the geographical distance, sees pride and purpose in aligning itself to the Sunni juggernaut lead by Saudi. Toeing the line, the nation severed diplomatic ties with Iran in 2016 (accusing it of fomenting unrest in the Gulf) and with Qatar in 2017. Sounds familiar?

The reason all of this should not be ignored is that any intervention by India can be spun into an anti-Islamic rhetoric in the island, by interests inimical to Indian influence in the Indian Ocean. It would be impossible for India to counter this narrative in a nation where as much as a spark in these troubled times can make the otherwise disinterested Maldivian into an actual participant in defending the cause. Yameen know this far too well, and might just be waiting for India to take the mis-step. It would help his cause in cementing his role as a defender and protector of the faith, while everything else, including the economy of Maldives is troubled.

To compare India’s intervention 30 years ago to help Maldives as a case in point is as naïve as it is uninformed. At that time, 1) in the mind of the Maldivian, India was helping them against a foreign aggressor (LTTE) and 2) there was no narrative that could be plausibly spun around faith.

The other plan of action of imposing sanctions on Maldives will just be as counter-effective. The three-decade-old trade agreement between India and Maldives gives special privileges to the Maldives for importing items from India which are restricted to other countries.

However, any restrictions on the trade of essential commodities could lead to severe shortages, fuelling antagonism towards India among the Maldivians. Nepal’s antagonism towards India serves as a distinct and fresh example of any such attempt.

There are voices within Maldives that see China as an economic coloniser and there were protests too, against Saudi plans of buying islands in the archipelago in 2017. But the rallying call of faith against an intruder hasn’t been tested yet and should not be piloted by India. Yameen is up for elections this year and signals of his desperation are visible.

No immediate fix

Yameen had managed to win the run-off for the 2013 presidential elections by just over 51 per cent against Nasheed. Also, this win was largely because of campaigning and support by leaders he’s now fallen out with. His poll prospects look very bleak in the current circumstances as in the last significant elections, his chief rival won 46 per cent of seats at the local body polls as recently as May 2017.

Certainly, Yameen will try his best attempting the subversion of the democratic Presidential election system itself. But it would be unsustainable, even if attempted. His desperate request to China of providing “security” to protect Chinese investments in the Maldives was refused.

India relied on the ballot box and the strength of a democracy to see Rajapakse’s departure in a similar ecosystem of an Indian Ocean ally leaning to China. In Maldives’ case, there might not be an immediate solution, but military-intervention or sanctions are a definite quagmire.

This is not to justify the current state of affairs in Maldives or the option of India staying deafeningly silent through it. As one analyst dryly noted that “New Delhi should remember that if one petty dictator in the region is allowed to go scot-free after harming India’s interests, there will be more of them in future”

It’s just that India should avoid any intervention that can be spun into an anti-Islamic rhetoric by interests within and outside. The Indian diplomatic arsenal has a host of weapons and India will have to patiently wait to deploy them.

The writer is a geopolitical analyst and a Chevening Fellow from the Oxford University

Published on February 14, 2018

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