India’s excessive attention to distant seas in the Indo-Pacific seems to leave home more vulnerable. There have been multiple opportunities to rescue Maldives from crisis of poor governance and from insecurity of maritime issues. However, these opportunities have been a lost cause. Under international and internal political pressures, President of Maldives, Mr. Yameen, has lifted the emergency only a few days after it was imposed for a period of one month. The time has come for India to help Maldives,not only stabilise politically but, also to secure its Southwest flank.
There have been many occasions in the past which have been lost in terms of India taking a leadership role with respect to its relationship with Maldives. Former President, Mr. Nasheed was the first democratically elected President of Maldives after twenty years of Gayoom’s dictatorial rule. Nasheed was a politician who had emerged from the streets of Maldives and should have been given greater support by the Indian government at the time. He was addressing important issues regarding Climate Change, Economy, Radicalisation and Education amongst others. This was in contrast to Gayoom’s rule where he alternately played the China and Sri Lanka card with India and asked for Indian assistance only when Maldives found itself in a dire state. The diversified policy that Mr. Nasheed was following was evident of a more steady course. This was often an irritant for Gayoom as he had continued to drive politics in the country from outside of the established power ring. Gayoom managed to create street demonstrations against Nasheed, which ultimately lead to a coup by Vice President Waheed. Waheed seized power with the help of the Defence Minister, Mr. Nazim. An Indian intervention would have been desirable to get the officially elected head of state back in power through diplomatic negotiations. Instead, the Government of India chose to recognise the non-elected President, Mr. Waheed, as the legal head of state.
While Nasheed was imprisoned, Mr. Waheed, at China's behest got rid of GMR from the management of Male airport. It was on frivolous grounds attributed to loss of revenue of $500 million on account of development charges not having been recovered by GMR. This was yet another opportunity for the Indian Government to provide a credit line of $ 500 million to the island nation and negotiate management shift to the Airport Authority of India. This could have met the aspirations of the Maldivian government. Later, China offered similar credit line to Maldives and were in a position to take over the management of Male airport. The Indian foreign policy officials probably realised the urgency of getting Mr. Nasheed out of confinement. The drama of Mr. Nasheed seeking asylum and demanding certain political settlement was played out at the Indian High Commission in Male. An election was brokered by the Indian Government. Little did it realise that Gayoom, who was in Singapore at the time, was crafting a different recipe for Maldives. Former Sri Lankan President, Mr. Rajapaksa, who did not see Indian security concerns as his priority (demonstrated by permitting the Chinese submarines to venture into Hambantota port), was seen as a close accomplice of Gayoom in the ongoing game of Chinese Chequers. There was little need for a re-election when an elected President had been ousted by a non-elected Vice President. The election results could have been guessed even before they began. The non-resident Maldivians (NRMs) in Sri Lanka, 6000 in number in the voter’s list, were a decisive factor of the fate of election. There were enough intelligence indicators that in the second phase of election, which was necessitated by a fractured verdict in the first phase, that the NRMs would be financially compensated by Gayoom and Rajapaksa. One of the three candidates in the race would withdraw their candidature on the last day of election and his votes in his favor would be bought out in favour of Mr. Yameen (who is also Gayoom’s half brother) leaving Mr. Nasheed out of the race. The Indian government, yet again, did not use its good offices to create a long term solution for a stable democracy in Maldives, which had become nascent. As expected Mr. Yameen Gayoom became the President.
A strange land bill was passed in the parliament, which permitted a foreign nation to buy an island as long as the investment was in order of $1 Billion and an additional area of 70% was reclaimed. What has not been in the debate is that Yameen needed 11 votes from opposition Members of Parliament for the smooth passage of the bill and it was appropriately paid for. While this may have been denied by Maldives, this bill was tailor made to favor China, who have expertise in land reclamation. The northern islands of Maldives are still developing. The northern-most island is only 90 nautical miles from Lakshadweep and Minicoy Islands of Indian territory. There is a joint EEZ surveillance mechanism in place, which was initiated as a late reaction by the outgoing Congress government. This mechanism could be under threat of abolition. This would be an indication of Chinese interest in buying one of the northern islands and reclaiming a further 70% as permitted by new law. Chinese have already claimed territorial sea and EEZ in the South China Sea with respect to artificial islands reclaimed by it and is the most hotly debated security issue in the Indo- Pacific region. If India does not address this issue now in Maldives they could have another South China Sea-like situation in their neighbourhood, too close for comfort. Positioning of a long range radar on one of these islands will leave majority of Indian peninsula vulnerable to surveillance. This is an extremely serious security concern.
The President, Mr. Yameen has lifted the emergency, and has created another opportunity for India as an able and democratic neighbour to assist Maldives in strengthening its democracy. The new government needs to address issues like growing Islamic radicalisation, climate change, trade and business environment, infrastructure, security. Maldivians have now experienced the illegal arrest of an elected President, unexplained sacking of Defence Minister and the Police Chief and the latest arrest of Vice President, Mr. Ahmed Adeeb. Adoption of a consensus building democratic policy is the need of the hour in the absence of which, Maldives will run into the chaos of autocratic rule when there is a suspect judiciary, divided society leading to a fractured polity.