The Maldives and India have always shared strong bilateral relations in terms of strategic, economical and military cooperation. The diplomatic bond has remained firm despite the vast difference between the two states in size, population and economy. India remains a major destination for many Maldivians who travel abroad for education, medical and business purposes.
A significant number of Maldivians reside in Indian cities such as Bangalore, Thiruvananthapuram, Mysore and several others. Similarly, a large portion of the Maldives’ expatriate workforce including teachers, doctors, engineers and other technical expertise are Indians, who have contributed to the country’s economy.
If not for the timely decision by the Indian government to intervene, the 1988 terrorist attack on the Maldives’ national defense force base by the mercenaries of the Sri Lanka-based terrorist organisation People’s Liberation of Tamil Elam (PLOTE), would have cost the Maldivian people their civilian government.
19 Maldivians lost their lives, but if not for the successful ‘Operation Cactus’ led by the Indian armed forces, the death toll could have been more, and a possible military junta could have taken control over the affairs of the state. Neither the Maldives nor its history will forget this brotherly act by India that symbolised the strong bilateral bond between the two states.
However, India’s decision to recognise the regime that took charge of the country after it toppled the Maldives’ first democratically elected government on February 7 shocked many. Of course, it would have been completely irrational to expect another ‘Operation Cactus’, but on diplomatic grounds India could have done better.
Having had a diplomatic office established in the Maldives and the rebellion broadcast live on television, the decision showed India’s failure in grasping the local political environment of the country, despite it being a base to large Indian investments worth millions. This failure did not only bring dismay to the local populace, but to international spectators as well.
For instance, Indian journalist Sumon K Chakrabarti in his article in the South Asia Monitor described the misstep as India losing “the mango as well as the sack”.
“With lost credibility and a history of dumping friends – from Burma to Bangladesh and now Maldives, the reality is stark – India has, as the saying goes, lost the mango as well as the sack in the Maldives,” he wrote.
Another journalist, B Raman for the Eurasia Review, put it as “badly damaging” to India’s “traditional position as the sole arbiter of political fortunes”.
He writes – “the government of India’s traditional position as the sole arbiter of political fortunes in the Maldives has been badly damaged and a number of international actors from the UK, the US, the European Union and the United Nations have rushed to the Maldives to try their hand in internal peace-making, thereby marginalising the traditional role of India. Only China and Pakistan have not yet entered the political fray in the Maldives. If they do, that will be ultimate humiliation for Indian diplomacy at its southern door-step.”
For a regime installed through illegitimate means, an assent from the region’s major player would obviously be the perfect gift. A gift that took the country back three years in terms democratic progress it achieved following the transition from a remorseless dictatorship. A gift that brought back the culture of state-sponsored torture, intimidation and harassment.
The accession of Vice-president Waheed Hassan resulted in a rudderless, clueless and mandate-less regime which neither entertained the popular support of the people nor had a contemplated plan to run the affairs of the state.
The unprecedented alteration to the dynamics of local politics saw the return of elements of past dictatorship back to power, which had previously been voted out in the country’s first free and fair presidential election in 2008.
Cabinet portfolios were divided among political parties with diverse political thinking, each of which had its own ambitions to come to power. Most of them do not carry any political weight or have any representation in parliament, including those with an religious element such as the Adhaalath Party.
Similarly ex-president Gayoom had his daughter and son appointed as state-minister level positions in the regime, much to the disappointment of those who had voted him out in 2008. But in Waheed’s words this was a “national unity government”.
A national unity government, whose elements while in opposition had made their antagonism towards Indian investments public, especially against infrastructure giant GMR, which was awarded a concession agreement to manage and develop Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) but was declared an economic enslaver.
India should have foreseen the consequences its investments would later face in endorsing a regime consisting of elements that had previously shown its disapproval towards major Indian investments. India should have taken its time to assess the political situation of the country and should have confirmed the legitimacy of the controversial regime before accepting it.
However, failure to do so resulted in the scrapping of its single largest investment by the very government it had recognised.
India’s concerns over the Maldives should have come earlier. Not when senior officials of the regime it give assent to nine months previously mocked, insulted and even accused its High Commissioner of indulging in bribery. Not when its largest investment in the country was evicted. None of which would have taken place had India taken a ‘prevention than cure’ approach towards the Maldives.
One must hesitantly agree to the point raised by the very ambitious Special Advisor to Waheed, Dr Hassan Saeed in his ‘candid’ letter to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
He observes: “The Indian Foreign Secretary’s visit to our country in February  failed to resolve the political crisis largely because India is no longer seen as a friendly and fair neighbour who could broker an honest and fair deal.”
Hailed as the world’s largest democracy, India’s inconsistency in its commitment towards democracy in the Maldives not only cost the eviction of its single largest investment in the country, but also gave rise to noisy anti-India rhetoric led by religious fundamentalists and politicians sided with the current regime.
In nine months time, the Maldives will hold its second multi-party presidential elections. Perhaps it these will be the country’s last chance in the near future to overcome what it lost in terms of democracy. It might also be a golden opportunity for India to reassure its commitment towards the democratic process of the country, by pressuring Waheed’s regime towards a free and fair ballot.
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