Maldives: Where from here for India? Bracing for expected and unexpected…

With the ‘sit-in’ saga by former Maldivian President Mohammed Nasheed in the Indian High Commission now behind it, New Delhi should now be honing its tactics for both the expected and the unexpected as that nation prepares for presidential polls in September. What is expected is that multi-party democracy looks poised to stay in the Indian Ocean atoll nation and that the elections will be held. Among the list of ‘unexpected’ includes the results of those polls, preceded by the nature of ‘inclusivity’ of those polls and what that would mean for domestic politics in that country.

Unexpected as Nasheed’s 11-day sit-in was, it drew international attention to his cause for being disqualified from contesting the elections. Alongside, it also stressed the primacy of India as the face of the international community in Maldivian affairs. The fact that the UN, the US, the UK – and China – issued statements on the occasion remained, but India’s voice would have been heard even if the sit-in had not drawn global attention. India’s stakes in the Maldives is rooted in historic, cultural, economic, geo-strategic realities and complementarities.

From day one, as India got engaged with the sit-in, it became increasingly clear that New Delhi was seeking to diffuse the situation for the immediate, leaving it to Maldivian stakeholders to sort out the larger issue. After all, the Maldivian judiciary was seized of the matter, and it would have been imprudent – and at times incompetent – on the part of India as an immediate neighbour, to comment on issues that are too sensitive in nature for New Delhi to be dragged into. It contrasts with positions that western powers take in international affairs, involving nations that are away from their neighbourhood or even periphery.

Various stake-holders have either pronounced, or indicated, or at least acknowledged that there was ‘no deal’ before Nasheed broke his sit-in, and commitments to his being allowed to contest the presidential polls are non-existent. The Maldivian government leaders have since declared that it was between Nasheed and the nation’s judiciary, as he stood accused of illegal abduction of Criminal Court Chief Judge Abdullah Mohammed. Disqualification flows from apprehension about the possibility of conviction and consequent sentencing beyond one year in prison (it could go up to three years), which alone is a condition for his disqualification.

The court could instead fine Nasheed MRf 2000, if found guilty, which is not a cause for disqualification under the law. Should the courts proceed against him for contempt, caused by his voluntary abstention to appear before it on two occasions, the maximum sentence for each occasion is only six months’ in prison or MRf 12,000 fine. It is again not a cause for his disqualification. It is another matter that the courts seems to have been lenient on this count – and the prosecution, too, does not seem to be wanting to press the case, which anyway is a matter for the three-judge trial bench alone to take note of.

‘Inclusive polls’

Throughout the period of Nasheed’s sit-in, India has called for ‘free, fair and inclusive’ polls for the presidency in Maldives, clearly indicating that nominees of recognised political parties should be allowed to contest the polls. Sweeping as the statement may seem – considering that other nominees of other political parties on other occasions could similarly be tried, punished and thus disqualified – New Delhi seems to have taken into account the fledgling nature of Maldivian democracy and the reality of Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) being the largest political party in the country.

The MDP National Council has already announced that the party would boycott the presidential polls if Nasheed was disqualified. This position, if carried forward to its logical conclusion in the event of Nasheed’s disqualification, could mean that a substantial section of the nation’s electorate – considered by many as the impressionable youth, who have been at the vanguard of the pro-democracy movement for close to a decade now – could be on the streets, protesting instead. This concern is shared not only by the international community, but also by many other stakeholders inside Maldives, but the answer may lie elsewhere.

Otherwise, the presidential polls promises to be competitive, and the campaign hot, with the MDP coming up with imaginative ideas (including Nasheed’s sit-in, controversial as it has been in domestic, political parlance). Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, whom Nasheed replaced as the president in the second, run-off round polls in 2008, after the latter had come on the top of the heap in the first round at the time, has announced his intention not to compete for the nomination of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) that he has founded since. The PPM is the second largest party in the country after the MDP, both inside and outside Parliament, and its presidential primary, now scheduled for March 30, promises to be an interesting affair.

Between them, the non-MDP parties, most of whom form the present-day ruling coalition under President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik, seem wanting to contest the presidency in the first round on their own steam. They are expected to take an anti-MDP line in the run-off round, each one of them hoping that there would be no finality in the first round and that their own nominee would reach that stage. That includes President Waheed, who has announced his intention to run for the presidency. No one, however, questions the competence of Nasheed as the MDP nominee coming on the top in the first round – which is what the MDP says will also be the final round and that their man would be re-elected President.

NSathiyaMoorthyBe it as it may, political stability would return to Maldives in the real sense of the term only with the parliamentary polls, in May 2014. It was in the absence of a majority parliament for President Nasheed that his government floundered at every step, and ended up challenging the same – as also the judiciary, consequently – at every turn. The Indian policy-makers are well aware of the inherent limitations imposed on Maldivian democracy– which is full of possibilities – at this stage. Alive to the possibilities of the unexpected under the milieu, they would also be aware of the expected that could flow from the dynamism of the nation’s democracy, which is still at its infancy, and could take unsure steps – which, however, it cannot afford.

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi.)