Unacknowledged mostly by the Indian media, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj undertook a two-day weekend visit to Maldives, setting the stage for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to follow suit, but possibly based on the quick-changing domestic developments in the Indian Ocean archipelago. Accompanied by Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar, she met President Abdulla Yameen apart from counterpart Dunya Maumoon, after the former had to make do with a detailed discussion on bilateral issues and concerns with the new Maldivian Vice-President, Ahmed Adeeb, during his August visit.
“India first,” was how President Yameen described Maldives’ foreign policy to EAM Sushma, according to an Indian High Commission statement later. The visitor, according to local media reports, reiterated India’s “Neighbours first” foreign policy, which has suffered a few setbacks in recent times, both as stand-alone bilateral affairs and in India’s prioritisation of issues, concerns and overseas visits by the nation’s high dignitaries.
“Discussions with the President of Maldives were reflective of the privileged relationship between India and Maldives,” the Indian statement said. Together, the current declarations should thus help reverse the trend in India-Maldives relations, particularly if the former makes a conscious and continuing effort to keep the neighbourhood a priority in its overall scheme.
Keeping China out?
During their talks, President Yameen reiterated the declared Maldivian position against extra-regional players in the shared Indian Ocean neighbourhood. To India, it meant keeping China out, not necessarily from trade and economic relations, but on the strategic security front. From a Maldives’ stand-point, it could have also implied keeping the US out, as well – an issue for America’s declared Indian friend in the neighbourhood to ponder. Otherwise, India may not be averse to the possibilities of Chinese investments in Maldives as elsewhere across the world in general and the immediate neighbourhood in particular – but with the rider that there are ‘no free lunches’ in international diplomacy and strategic contexts.
India is at present building a Composite Training Centre for the Maldives National Defence Forces (MNDF), the Maldivian armed forces, and is engaged in joint patrolling and training programmes for MNDF officers, joint military exercises and medical camps. Army personnel from the two nations held their bi-annual exercises near the south Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram recently. The better-known ‘Dosti’ series of bi-annual naval exercises, also including common neighbour Sri Lanka since the last time round, is due to be held of the Goa coast in late October.
Truth be acknowledged, EAM Sushma’s visit was quickly followed by Vice-President Adeeb leaving for Beijing, to launch a Maldivian investors forum meeting, after the relatively successful one in Singapore in 2014. EAM Sushma’s visit has led to a mutual commitment on holding a similar investors’ forum in India, too. As may be recalled, President Mohammed Nasheed, during a visit to India while in office (2008-12) had met Indian investors at Mumbai outside of the fledgling GMR contract, and the results were mixed, thus.
Coinciding with Minister Sushma’s visit was the Ankara bombing in distant Turkey, President Yameen’s statement condemning the attack and promising to work with the international community against religious terrorism should have also addressed Indian concerns, one more time. Hawks in India, both viz religious terrorism and Maldives, have for some time now, harped on the possibilities of anti-India terror-attacks, both of the Pakistani ISI and international ISIS types, based out of the Indian Ocean archipelago. As individual episodes of the past year have proved, more Maldivians are enrolling into ISIS per capita than from many other nations, including the West and the rest — and are also fighting and dying in Syria. While the Yameen Government has been discouraging youth from the country from fighting ‘un-Islamic wars’ of others in third nations, there also seems to be concern about the terrorists looking inwards and training their ‘guns’ on Maldives.
The recent social-media threats against President Yameen and other Government leaders should be a case in point – pending the conclusion of the internationally-assisted probe into the blast in his official launch when he was aboard, along with the First Lady. India, along with Sri Lanka, Australia, Saudi Arabia and the US had sent forensic experts to help out the Maldivian police, and the initial Sri Lankan media reports, citing official sources, has confirmed a planned attack on President Yameen.
EAM Sushma also used the occasion to co-chair a meeting of the Joint Commission on Economic and Technical Cooperation – the first in 15 years and only the sixth since the forum was launched as far back as 1986. The meeting concluded or discussed MoUs on improved cooperation not only on the trade front, but also on health, education and labour fronts, among others.
Thus, the Foreign Institutes of the two countries would increase their cooperation in improving training for prospective Maldivian diplomats, who join the services at a relatively younger age than counterparts in most countries, including the South Asian neighbours. On the all-important health sector, where low population and long distances make for huge gaps in a modern health delivery system in the archipelago-nation, India promised to increase the number of hospitals covered by the Maldivian Government-sponsored ‘Aasandha’ health insurance scheme for their citizens.
“The experience of Indian companies in Maldives was reviewed,” the Indian statement said, without giving any specifics. The reference of course is to the Indian infrastructure-major, GMR, which has had a bad experience over the construction-cum-concession contract for upgrading the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport at capital Male. Caught in a political hailstorm in its time, the GMR, President Yameen said after assuming office had not done proper ‘due-diligence’.
Independent of GMR type of large-industry controversies, in which Tata Housing too was involved for a time, there have also been issues pertaining to banking and credit-recovery laws in Maldives, which too has proved to be a dampener for Indian investors. India is pledged to help Maldives modernise banking laws, where greater movement needs to be witnessed. India is also the only country, near or far, which has experience and expertise in marrying modern, ‘common law’ practices with ‘personal’ (read: religious) laws like the Islamic Shariat, even in criminal and other civil matters.
One the post-GMR recent controversy over the Maldivian arrest and court-ordered conviction and 13-year-long imprisonment of former President Mohammed Nasheed, President Yameen reportedly reiterated the known position of his Government. Against mounting international pressure, including the more recent ruling of a UN Working Group that Nasheed’s imprisonment amounted to ‘arbitrary detention’, President Yameen reportedly indicated that the international community should give a fair chance/trial to his nation’s existing schemes and systems, including the Judiciary.
The reference, if so, was obviously to his Government’s appealing Nasheed’s trial court ruling, first in the High Court and now in the nation’s High Court, after the prosecution had originally converted a criminal case into a ‘terrorism case’ with a minimum 10 years in prison. The Yameen Government, if at all, is yielding to what it considers is the partisan international pressure, only in fits and starts. Having taken a high ground in the case, based on issues of ‘sovereignty’, it would find it difficult to climb down as fast as the West in particular would want, notwithstanding the legality of the Government’s arguments in the domestic context and without reference to the UN-mandated institutional rulings.
On a matter of principle, there is no difference between the known Indian position and frequently-reiterated Maldivian stand in the matter. Barring a solitary reference to the way the police pushed and pulled Nasheed around while producing him before the court on one occasion India has refrained from commenting publicly on the matter. It’s again a considered Indian position on internal matters of neighbourhood nations, at times including adversarial Pakistan.
However, Indian concerns about the Nasheed imprisonment, including those pertaining to the continued stability of Maldives and the inherent incapacity of any Government in Male to divide and diversify political and security resources to multiple tasks, including possible IS-type threats, remain. As the world’s largest democracy, India’s concerns also pertain to that score, though unlike most other democracy, it has not been selective in applying the ‘rule of law’, nor is it too enthusiastic about going along with the West on selective application and constant ‘upgradation’ of the same – or, so it seems.
In context, on an earlier occasion when Nasheed faced imminent arrest in the ‘Judge Abdulla case’ in 2013, and took unilateral refuge in the Indian High Commission premises, Indian diplomacy was believed to have worked overtime to have the care hearing indefinitely put off, if only to give him and his Maldivian Democratic Party, a ‘level-playing field’ in the 2013 presidential poll. It was again in the context of the MDP’s proven membership viz the figures for the rest of them, including Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), put together.
It is thus unclear as yet, why the Nasheed camp and the MDP second-line chose to count more on a global display of western diplomacy against the quiet and sustained Indian way of achieving results – or, laid greater stress on their own pre-power ways of street-displays, not stopping with public protests and defying the laws. While in Male, EAM Sushma met MDP’s parliamentary group leader, Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Solih. After her departure, MDP’s international spokesperson Hamid Abdul Ghafoor, in a statement, welcomed President Yameen’s “India First” observations, though with caveats.
More points of contact
By most, if not all indicators, the Sushma visit has been successful, setting the stage for a possible early prime ministerial visit from India. On that score, too, Maldives seems to have held its ground. Ahead of the Maldivian Independence Golden Jubilee, authorities in Male held that PM Modi already had a pending invitation to visit the country, and no new invitation needed to be extended on the occasion, if he decided to participate.
The reference obviously was to the last-minute cancellation of the Maldives leg of the first-ever four-nation Indian Ocean neighbourhood visit by any Indian leader, in March. The multi-point Indian predicament in the matter did not seem to have been lost on his Maldivian hosts at the time, following the un-seeming – and possibly unexplained – haste in proceeding with the Nasheed trial at the time.
As it turned out, the trial court judgment came almost at the same hour as PM Modi landed in Colombo, the capital of neighbouring Sri Lanka. It was a Friday, a public holiday in the Islamic nation – and closer to midnight, the proverbial unholy hour for a court verdict to be delivered in as sensational and serious case of the kind. It’s anybody’s guess if the Maldivian authorities would have continued with the same pace if PM Modi were to land in Male, instead, that night or around the period.
Now, the Nasheed case, the trial and the MDP’s global political initiative are all past the prime of the Ides of March, particularly for bilateral relations from an Indian angle. Yet, there is a realisation that if someone could do something productive in Nasheed’s case, it could only be India. And there is a continuing acceptance in Indian official circles – as different from the strategic community – that if anything could succeed, it’s only the Indian way of quiet diplomacy, and not any display of power and protests.
Yet, questions about the timing of a prime ministerial visit from India may remain. Almost immediately after EAM Sushma’s visit, President Yameen sacked his Defence Minister, a former chief of the Maldivian National Defence Forces (MNDF), Moosa Ali Jaleel, the second such dismissal this calendar year, over the recent blast on presidential boat when the incumbent was onboard. The investigations are still on, and some arrests have also been made. Under the circumstances, India, it would naturally seem, would prefer a cooling-off period before planning a major VVIP visit, even from the political and diplomatic angles, in terms of what such a visit could achieve, apart from natural security concerns. In context, Maldivian authorities might have possibly come to grips with the rationale behind PM Modi postponing – and not cancelling – his March visit.
Even otherwise, the communication-gap between the two nations, which has nothing to do with coalescing positions, seems to have since been bridged, after an exchange of Foreign Secretary visits in August, and the more recent Sushma-Dunya meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. While bilateral trade relations and economic cooperation have grown even without a Joint Commission meeting for long, the decision to meet next year in Delhi should be an expression of desire for identifying more points of contacts between the political leaderships of the two nations, outside of the UN General Assembly and SAARC discussions.
What thus remains is a revival of talks on dates and agenda for an early visit by Prime Minister Modi to Maldives, after President Yameen had made his first official overseas visit to Delhi in January 2014, followed by one in end-May last year, for the former’s Inauguration. It could hold greater promises not only for bilateral relations and regional stability, but even for the future course of Maldivian domestic politics and personality, but without external say-so.
(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter)