Caught in the Male morass

For a nation that sees its two main threats as emanating from its western neighbour sending in wave after wave of terrorists from the Pakistani jihadi factory, and China’s growing stranglehold of the Indian Ocean with its takeover of Gwadar, the churning in the Maldives that is roiling the 1,200 island archipelago at our doorstep has caught India completely on the hop.
Did we not see this coming? Amid all the finger-pointing, and frustration in Delhi at being put in the position of having to come to the aid — publicly — of the former President Mohamed Nasheed, who chose in spectacular fashion on February 13 to seek refuge in the Indian high commission, and the accusations by the Mohammed Waheed government of Indian interference in their internal affairs, some sustained, nimble-footed diplomacy was the need of the hour.
The question is, who took the eye off the Maldivian ball?
Indeed, Delhi inexplicably waited for the storm to blow over, ignoring pointers that Male was slipping out of its grasp. All the signs spoke of growing resentment against Delhi, post the so-called coup that ended Mr Nasheed’s run last February, followed by the GMR fiasco when the Indian business conglomerate was unceremoniously thrown out from the management of Hulhule airport in Male, and President Waheed’s predictable warming up to China.
He was of course playing Delhi off against Beijing, just as Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse has done, while telling India that the China bogey was a figment of Nasheed’s imagination.
Ties with Male, which once looked no further than India for everything from security to defence, culture, tourism and education for generations of Maldivians, have never been as strained as they are today.
The next step was again all too obvious. And Delhi should have seen it coming. Maldives President Mohammed Waheed, whose National Unity Party has just over 3,000 members on its rolls is in danger of being kept outside the entire electoral process, falling short of the minimum ten per cent representation required by the Maldives’ Election Commission.
Clearly, President Waheed was going to do everything in his power to ensure that Mr Nasheed — whose Maldives Democratic Party has over 45,000 members and is therefore still the major force to reckon with politically — is made ineligible for re-election. This is what we see in play.
The danger here is this — the internal jockeying for power and control that saw Mr Nasheed’s shock ouster in February 2012 under questionable circumstances could as easily escalate from verbal point scoring and not so violent street protests of the present day, to full-scale blood-letting, as presidential elections loom in September.
The temptation before President Waheed to scupper elections altogether, citing security concerns, is an eventuality India must factor in. Already, pro-government television stations are airing tapes of conversations that Mr Nasheed has purportedly had with his party from within the Indian mission, where he asks for his supporters to converge on the capital, Male.
The last thing Delhi needs is a Benghazi in Male, when armed mobs in the Libyan town rampaged through the US consulate and took the lives of three US nationals including US ambassador Christopher Stevens. India has already asked the Waheed government to up security, acutely aware that Mr Nasheed, in choosing to unilaterally seek refuge in its mission and focus the international community’s attention on concerns over his personal safety, is playing a high-risk game that has drawn India, willy-nilly into the Maldivian morass.
The difficulty is that India’s line that Mr Nasheed’s arrival at its doorstep was not pre-planned has no takers in President Waheed’s inner circle, which is now seeking to drive a wedge between our man in Male, D.V. Mulay, whom they unfailingly discredit as a Nasheed-GMR apologist, and Delhi. India, no doubt, will stand by its man but it must also ensure that it does not cast all its eggs in Mr Nasheed’s basket, as it did once before.
The former President’s immediate priority remains — not just his safety — but to avoid a court appearance that is required in the face of a court summons, so that he can delay being sentenced. Any jail sentence of more than a year would make him ineligible to stand for president.
As India’s three-member fact-finding team meets with everyone across the political spectrum, from former President Abdul Gayoom — whose clique too is seeking to reclaim power from under President Waheed’s nose by allying with other parties — as well as the foreign minister and the defence minister, President Waheed’s advisers have upped the ante, threatening to issue a fresh warrant for his arrest, and send troops into the Indian high commission to, as one worthy put it, “pluck the cornered rabbit” out of his safe haven, and take him to court, just as they did with Mr Nasheed’s defence minister and the generals who served under him.
Male also wants the Indian high commissioner removed forthwith. Can India stand fast in the face of this kind of pressure from tiny Maldives?
So far the Indian team has told their Maldivian interlocutors that Mr Nasheed is “athithi devo bhava (all guests are treated as God)” which has riled the Waheed group, bent as it is on taking Mr Nasheed to court on corruption charges as well as getting the police and the military to “lock up the Supreme Court and get the judge to disappear.”
Powerful forces are at work here, with Mr Waheed’s own party pushing to negotiate a stint in power for three years, as Maldives’ other political parties, which command a much bigger vote base and are in negotiations to counter Mr Waheed, get a taste of the pulls and pressures of a country no longer under the iron fist of the ailing but still powerful Mr Gayoom.
India needs to find a way to ensure that Mr Nasheed gets safe passage out of the mission. It must also subtly work towards a lesser jail term of six months, or at best, a fine.
As the Sri Lankan government cocks a snook at the international community, aghast at the latest pictures of the last few moments of Tiger chief’s son, 12-year-old Balachandran Prabhakaran, before he was allegedly executed by the Sri Lankan military, safe in the knowledge that India will pay no more than lip service when the UN Human Rights Commission takes it up in the coming weeks in Geneva, what does that make us?
A nation, that allows these fires to burn at our door as we watch helplessly? Or, one that stands up for what we believe in? What can India do in the Maldives? A show of force? Economic sanctions? Or backroom diplomacy that saves face all around?
How India tackles this challenge will cast it either as a natural leader of the South Asian region or as a country that cannot handle its neighbours. Smart now, or sledgehammer later?

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