Maldives is in the Indian sphere of influence. New Delhi must ensure it stays that way.
Asino-lslamist specter, as it were, is haunting India in her backyard. Or more precisely in the Indian Ocean where Maldives has just seen a higher judiciary-enabled virtual coup take place with Supreme Court judges who ordered the Government of President Abdulla Yameento release Opposition leaders from jail and drop trumped-up charges against former pro-India President Mohammad Nasheed either nobbled or surrounded by armed security forces in their chambers and forced to annul their orders. Whether by accident or design, the Chinese and the Saudi Arabians with, worryingly, Pakistan too in the mix, are emerging as the behind-the-stage actors in this power play in the Maldives that clearly aims to exclude India from any significant role in a country and region which has traditionally been in its sphere of influence.
Indo-Maldivian ties had, till the Islamist surge over the past decade aided monetarily by Riyadh and abet- ted strategically by Beijing, been a model of cooperation and friendliness between a vast, sub-continental giant of a country and a tiny archipelago of atolls and islets adrift in the ocean. Indeed, the 1988 limited military intervention-code-named Operation Cactus-initiated by the Rajeev Gandhi Government to reinstate the authority of the democratically elected government of then President Abdul Gayoom (on the latter’s request) that had been the target of an attempted coup by militant Tamil organizations based out of Sri Lanka funded by a Maldivian moneybags and supported by elements within the Maldivian security forces was widely considered a model for the benign security role India could, and should, play in the Indian Ocean. For, Indian forces went in, restored the rightful Government,put in motion institution- building on the island nation, and left.
Possibly due to the neglect of our strategic interests in this vital region through the 1990’s and 2000’s which wasn’t helped by an uncalled for squeamishness in calling out Islamists and radicals, today New Delhi has a situation on its hands wherein the rogue President Yameen, who has been allowed partly by inaction on India’s part, to gain the upper hand in the power struggle in the Maldives, is merrily sending out special envoys to ‘friendly nations’ to ‘provide updates on the current situation’ in the Maldives – China, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
Beijing has already upped the ante and warned against ‘any military intervention’ in the Maldives; a clear reference to India. In fact, China’s official statement on the crisis also contains a not-so-veiled threat that any intervention could ‘complicate matters’. Exiled former President Nasheed, who has made multiple appeals to New Delhi to intervene with no purchase so far, has also reacted to state-owned Chinese media outlets’ narrative that a military intervention from India would be tantamount to an “invasion”, stating: “The Indians are not occupiers but liberators of the Maldivian people as was evidenced in 1988. Asking us to ‘resolve matters internally’ is akin to asking us to escalate the revolt which can lead to chaos.” The Indian Ministry of External Affairs has thus far not responded officially to the former President’s appeals, understandably so. But it is significant that Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj is in Riyadh, even as we write, on her first visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia which has not yet made any overt moves in the Maldives crisis. Indian diplomats and strategic experts are also in touch with Washington and other Western Capitals, it is understood, to shore up support for the Indian position.
While we must accept the reality that we are no longer in the position of dominance in the Maldives that we were in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, it does not mean we should not do everything possible to recover lost ground. The current crisis in that country, though a serious challenge, also provides us an opportunity to do precisely that.