The Maldives, the idyllic Indian Ocean atoll nation, famed for its high-end luxury resorts and the otherworldly serenity of its islands, is giving the Indian diplomatic establishment a major headache that is simply refusing to go away. Mohamed Nasheed, former president who was ousted under suspicious circumstances in February last year, has taken refuge in the Indian high commission for the past eight days, leaving Indian diplomats in a peculiar bind.
A team of senior Indian officials, headed by Harsh Vardhan Shringla, joint secretary in charge of the Maldives in India’s external affairs ministry, is engaged in intense talks with all stakeholders to resolve the deadlock in the Maldivian capital Male. The crisis started after Nasheed failed to appear in a Maldivian court on charges of detaining Chief Criminal Judge Abdulla Mohamed while he was president. The Maldivian Democratic Party has slammed the charges to be politically motivated and contended that it was designed to disqualify him from politics and elections which are scheduled to be held September 7. Indian diplomats have met a wide spectrum of stakeholders, including Maldives Foreign Minister Abdul Samad Abdulla, but it’s not clear if any breakthrough is on the horizon.
Maldivian President Mohamed Waheed’s press secretary Masood Imad told PTI, an Indian news agency, that following the expiry of the second arrest warrant, Nasheed was a free man and can come out of the Indian Mission without fearing an arrest. But in the same breath, he warned that if Nasheed continued to stay away from the court, then it can give a ruling in absentia.
India’s suave External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid underlined India’s stakes in the stability of the atoll nation, saying New Delhi would be the “happiest” if the situation is solved. “There is unusual stress caused by local conditions. We just wish them the best… I would certainly endorse any method and any means by which the present situation can be resolved,” he said. “I think it is actually not a matter that gives any sense of satisfaction and if it gets resolved, we will be the happiest”.
The MDP, Nasheed’s party, has demanded the caretaker government to conduct the upcoming elections and end the deepening political impasse. Former Foreign Minister Ahmed Naseem told reporters in Colombo that a boycott by the MDP, the largest single party in the archipelago, will undermine the legitimacy of any election.
The old-fashioned power struggle is at the heart of the ongoing political theatre in the Maldives, a country of barely 300,000 people, with economic and political power concentrated in a few dozen families. The ruling party is determined to stall Nasheed’s return to power, and seems ready to resort to any stratagem to achieve this aim. But Nasheed, who has projected himself as the victim of a coup, is a formidable fighter and is in no mood to oblige his detractors.
For India, the internal power play in the Maldives has posed new challenges in protecting its interests in this strategically located island which is being courted by Beijing with renewed fervor. Over two months ago, the Maldives government cancelled a $511 million airport development contract with GMR Infrastructure (GMRI.NS), the biggest Indian investment in the atoll nation. “GMR is the biggest Indian investment in Male and we are only insisting for adherence to the legal process. Nothing more, nothing less,” Syed Akbaruddin, spokesman for India’s foreign ministry, had said at that time.
India’s largest FDI in the atoll nation was cancelled amid speculation that it was done under the influence of subtle lobbying by China. What has added to India’s worries is the way how some fringe politicians in the Maldives are trying to orchestrate the India role as an issue in elections. It has come as a shock to India to see how a commercial dispute was used by some fringe elements and political parties in the Maldives to whip up anti-India sentiments.
The festering crisis in the Maldives has also come as a setback to India’s efforts to scale up ties with the atoll nation. During Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to the Maldives in November 2011, India had inked an umbrella agreement with the Maldives to intensify cooperation in diverse areas, including trade and counter-terrorism. India has also pledged a fresh $100 million line of credit for the picture-pretty atoll nation. The two countries had signed six pacts, including two on combating terrorism and transfer of sentenced persons.
- Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network (www.indiawrites.org) and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.