Nothing explains the width and depth of bilateral relations between India and Maldives than the speed with which the People’s Majlis passed a special legislation unanimously for the visiting Heads of State and Government to address members in a special session, only days before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was to arrive in Male for bilateral talks with President Mohammed Nasheed.
Despite the deep divisions within the Maldivian polity, which often gets reflected in Parliament, as in other democracies, Maldives offered a near-full House when Singh became the first visiting Head of Government to address the House.
“The People’s Majlis is a testimony to the strong faith the people of Maldives have shown in democracy. As a fellow democracy, we take delight in your achievements,” the Prime Minister said.
“India will be at your side in your transition to a fully functioning democracy. We will assist the Majlis by way of training, formulation of rules and regulations, and any other assistance that you may desire,” he said, touching upon the democratic milestones achieved by this “pearl of the Indian Ocean” in a short span since 2008, when the nation adopted a new Constitution providing for multi-party democracy and elected a new President.
Singh also touched upon the formation of the India-Maldives Parliamentary Friendship Groups. The Indian Prime Minister also met with the Leader of the Opposition in the Majlis, Thaseen Ali of the Dhivehi Rayyathunge Party (DRP), setting a healthy precedent.
In a way, the Prime Minister’s references to the ushering in of democracy in Maldives and the strengthening of democratic institutions in the country were an acknowledgement of the initiatives taken by President Nasheed and his Government since his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) began a movement for the purpose while in the opposition.
As Singh pointed out in his Majlis speech, Maldives has “undertaken the reforms necessary for the independent functioning of the judiciary and other vital organs of the State. The People’s Majlis has upheld the freedom of speech and expression of the people and the media which are the pillars of democracy,” he said.
The Prime Minister’s references to capacity-building thus included Indian assistance to all sections and sectors of Maldivian Government and democratic institutions. When put into action, it would go a long way in furthering democratic linkages, whose institutional mechanisms would go a long way in deepening and widening the ties and trust between the two Indian Ocean neighbours.
After structured talks between President Nasheed and Prime Minister Singh, the two sides signed six agreements. Topping the list was the Framework Agreement on Cooperation in Development. The agreement committed India to aiding and assisting Maldives in a series of development projects over the coming years. India is already committed to setting up the Maldivian National University in Male, for which buildings are already coming up.
Another agreement provides for New Delhi renovating the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital in the capital, a gift from India. Prime Minister Singh said that India would also undertake a feasibility study on constructing a port in northern Kulhudhuffushi. India also contributed substantially to the development of Addu City and Atoll into the ‘convention capital’ of Maldives to help integrate the southern part into the nation at a faster pace.
Given the economic realities in which Maldives is placed, combined with some of the politically-driven decisions of the Government in the past, Indian assistance for the atoll-nation has always been substantial and readily forthcoming. Immediately after President Nasheed came to office in November 2008, India extended a US$100 million line of credit, as sought by the Maldivian Government. In 2009, India fully subscribed the $ 100-m treasury bonds floated by Maldives.
Among the agreements signed during the prime ministerial visit this time, one provided for a US$100 million standby credit facility for the country.
Sensitivity to security concerns
The second item on the list of six agreements was a ‘Memorandum of Understanding on Combating International Terrorism, Trans-national Crime, Illicit Drug Trafficking and Enhancing Bilateral Cooperation in Capacity-Building, Disaster Management and Coastal Security’.
As the long title indicates, the agreement reads all-inclusive, to cover all aspects of security, starting with human security. At the news conference held after the conclusion of the agreements and bilateral talks, both the leaders touched upon the decision to introduce ferry services between the two countries.
Considering the logistics and other issues involved, the two sides would be holding further talks in the matter, to dovetail Indian concerns, if any, and Maldivian interests, given the continuing family and cultural linkages between the peoples of the two countries in some islands.
“In furtherance of the shared recognition that the security interests of both the countries are inter-lined in the region, they (the two leaders) reiterated their assurance that each side would be sensitive to the concerns of the other on the issue and that their respective territories would not be allowed for any activity inimical to the other and by any quarter,” the Joint Statement issued at the conclusion of the visit said.
Though tugged in between commitments on fighting international terrorism, piracy and drug-trafficking, the message was clear. In this context, the joint statement said, “The two leaders agreed to strengthen cooperation enhance maritime security in the Indian Ocean Region through coordinated patrolling and aerial surveillance, exchange information, capacity-building and the development of an effective legal framework against piracy.”
India’s concerns in the shared Indian Ocean neighbourhood do not stop with terrorism, piracy and drug-trafficking, though, among them, there is always a greater concern about the first in the list. Strategic analysts in India and elsewhere have often been writing about the perceived increase in fundamentalism in Maldives. At the conclusion of the SAARC Summit, fundamentalist elements in southern Addu set fire to, and later decamped with, the monument erected by Pakistan as part of a SAARC custom. To them, the motifs at the foot of the monument depicting the artefacts of the Indus Valley Civilisation had idols of worship, which was not allowed in Islam. The reference was to motifs resembling Buddha, worshipped in some of the SAARC nations.
While the fundamentalist Adhaalath Party has gone to court, charging the Government with going against the letter and spirit of the Constitution, some leaders of the newly-formed Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), founded by former President Maumoon Gayoom, said those who destroyed the monument were ‘national heroes’. PPM and Adhaalath Party youth also held demonstrations, something that not all the senior leaders in the former reportedly relished. The strategic community reads all this in the context of the 26/11 experience, when sea-borne terrorists had attacked Mumbai, the nation’s business capital. For the Maldivian authorities, it is a concern about the increasing permissiveness and acceptance of fundamentalist elements, if not ideology. However, the dividing line, as they understand, is also thin.
India’s concerns are also directed at China, whose increasing interest in Maldives came to the fore with the opening of an embassy in Male on the eve of the SAARC Summit. India is alive to diplomatic and political realities, where the opening of an embassy by any country in any other by itself should not be a cause for concern. But New Delhi’s concerns now are because of China’s increasing military might and strategic ambitions, particularly in the immediate Indian Ocean neighbourhood. However, India draws clear distinction between China’s economic interests and investment potential in all nations in the neighbourhood and beyond, though New Delhi is not unaware of the political clout and dominance that it could facilitate over time.
While the neighbourhood countries are hungry for huge investments, Indian private sector, unlike their Chinese counterparts, if the latter could truly be called so, has not been so forthcoming. The result is that the countries are left with little choice. In this regard, the Indian Government may have to do as much at home as overseas to encourage the Indian industry to put big money in the neighbourhood, combining economic interests with a sense of national duty, and not crib that China and Chinese are everywhere and that they had no space to play out when they enter overseas markets belatedly.
The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation
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