Maldives: Recalibrating ‘India first’ policy?

Maldives: Recalibrating ‘India first’ policy?

In his maiden overseas visit after becoming the Maldives Foreign Minister, Dr. Mohamed Asim said that the choice flowed from his nation’s India first policy. A career diplomat with a PhD in Politics and International Relations from Australian National University (ANU), Asim was Maldives’ High Commissioner to Bangladesh before President Abdulla Yameen named him the Foreign Minister last month. Earlier, he was the High Commissioner to the UK and Pakistan. Asim’s vast experience, exposure and contacts are thus expected to help defend his Government on ‘democracy issues’ at the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) meet in September and a possible mention of the same at some UN forum around the annual General Assembly session.

Foreign Minister Asim’s India trip was followed by the Male visit(s) of Commonwealth Special Envoy Willy Mutunga and the UN counterpart Tamrat Samuel. The two were expected to try take forward dead-locked ‘political negotiations’ among Maldivian stake-holders which was a non-starter in the first place. The long and short of it is that the Yameen leadership had to make all the ‘compromises’ and ‘accommodation’, so to say.

There is no hope in sight for that to happen, unless the international community (read: West) persuades Maldives United Opposition (MUO), sponsored by former President Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed too to give in a quarter. Serious political negotiations, whether domestic or international, is never one-sided, if the aim is to make it work.

The alternative before the West and the rest of the anti-Yameen Maldivian stakeholders is to have the incumbent defeated in the next presidential polls, due only in November 2018. The Nasheed camp insists that he would have to be the candidate of the Maldives United Opposition (MUO). As is known, the UK, head of the Commonwealth, has granted him political asylum, after the Yameen Government was persuaded to grant him ‘prison leave’ for medical treatment in London. The post-Brexit government in the UK has since followed it up with ‘political asylum’ to three more anti-Yameen leaders who are already in self-exile in the UK.

Peace and politics

In Delhi, Minister Asim reportedly discussed Indian Ocean security issues with Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj over official-level talks followed by a luncheon. In a none-too-common fixture, he also called on Vice President Hamid Ansari, diplomat and educationist. The last time Vice President Ansari was in the news on Maldives, he had represented India at the November 2008 inauguration of President Nasheed, following the first multi-democracy elections in the Indian Ocean archipelago.

In the Indian context, ocean or regional security is an euphemism for the ‘China factor’ on the one hand, and IS, ISI activities on the other. Just now, CMAG and the UN may be more in Maldivian official focus than China or even IS recruitments from the country, about which India is concerned even more. Not long ago, Indian Prime Minister’s counter-terrorism special envoy, Syed Asif Ibrahim, a former boss of the Intelligence Bureau (IB), was in Male, discussing IS-ISI related issues.

According to a PTI report, picked up by The Hindu, Asim and Swaraj discussed “strategic perspectives for maintaining peace and security in the Indian Ocean region amid China’s efforts to increase its footprint.” The report quoted Vikas Swarup, the spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs that the two leaders “also exchanged views on the consonance in the strategic perspectives of the two countries to maintain peace and security in the Indian Ocean region.” [italics added]

Tactics and strategy

In the April session of the CMAG, India, Pakistan, Malaysia and others joint hands to neutralise efforts to initiate action against Maldives and/or its select leaders on ‘democracy issues.’ There is nothing still to suggest that the Yameen leadership has complied by the do’s and don’ts in the CMAG prescription. Nor is it expected to do so ahead of the September session.

The Indian decision becomes difficult and crucial at the same time. It could be made that much more difficult — or, easier — if Maldives, when pushed to the wall, walks out of the Commonwealth, as it has been threatening under President Yameen, and President Waheed Hassan before him. Yet, on the neighbourhood front, India would still have hit a dead-spot, especially if communication lines with Male get broken. It could be even more so for the international community, in India’s ‘traditional sphere of influence.’

In sum, the West seems to have chosen CMAG as the venue for targeting Maldives as it could not muster the numbers at UNHRC, unlike in the case of neighbouring Sri Lanka since 2012. In the UN, ‘errant nations’ like Maldives and Sri Lanka (in the eyes of the West) have the unsought for veto-support of China and Russia. The CMAG thus fits the western tactics, but the Yameen leadership seems to be strategising around the UN, if it could help. Friends and neighbours of Maldives, like India and the present-day Sri Lankan leadership, may be caught in between. Distant neighbour Malaysia, for instance, has no such qualms and could continue to back Maldives at the CMAG, as in April.

Caught in between

Truth be acknowledged, India is caught in between, both on form and content. India is not a veto-member of UNSC, nor is it expected to become one in the foreseeable future. Yet, the sheer weight of India’s presence, political clout and regional relevance has made it count in international fora. Without a veto-vote, India was also not expected to take pre-determined positions. Hence, it could influence international opinion, decisions, cutting across ideological and geographical dividing lines. Not any more, it would now seem.

Leaving aside Pakistan, Maldives as a neighbour is not as much relevant in India’s domestic politics as Sri Lanka or Bangladesh. Yet, neighbours would watch CMAG in September (at times silently), on how far India would/could go in defence of its self-styled role and position, if any, in its ‘traditional sphere of influence.’ Neighbours will be evaluating India’s willingness and ability to throw its weight on their side and produce results that they wanted. The alternative (alone) would be for them to bank on China, Russia and the UNSG.

Alternatively, Chinese, Russian and even Saudi influence on Commonwealth members could help offset the Indian position and relevance even within the relatively small international forum. This, in turn, could render India irrelevant, if the nation did not retain regional and international initiatives of the kind. To then expect smaller neighbours to hold on to India firstwould be only in word, not deed.

China had reportedly demonstrated its limited reach and out-reach, though only in a limited way, ahead of the UNHRC 2012 vote after the Indian political leadership of the time decided to vote for the negotiated US resolution on Sri Lanka. In context, India needs to ask itself if the Rajapaksa decision to let Chinese submarines closer to Indian waters in Sri Lankan ports flowed from total international dependence on China.

Democracy ladder

India and the rest of the world also stand on different steps of the democracy ladder, if at all, putting Maldives either in the lowest one or even on the ground below it. After the recent ‘multi-nation’ condemnation of the recent anti-defamation law passed by the People’s Majlis, Maldives pointed out that four of the five signatories had laws that criminalised defamation. As for India, the Supreme Court, backed by the Government of India, recently declined to outlaw the colonial law on defamation.

On the more recent Maldivian law, requiring prior police permission for public protests, India and every other democratic nation has had one on their respective statutes for too long, for even the political Opposition in the Indian Ocean archipelago not to have known it. In the peculiarity of the circumstances under which the 2008 ‘democracy’ Constitution was framed, the present-day Maldivian Opposition (as it was then again) seemed to have overlooked the citizen’s right to ‘equality before law’ and ‘equal protection of the laws’ extending to cover street-behaviour of individuals and institutionalised political parties.

On the more controversial judiciary, the Maldivian Opposition and their friends in the international community have talked of ‘collusion.’ In India just now, it’s ‘confrontation’ between the Executive and the Judiciary that has been making the news. It’s about the procedures for and appointment of judges to various High Courts across the country. The question is if the Executive can expect the Judiciary to sign a MoU of whatever kind on the selection of Judges and still expect the courts to function independently.

Less said about western democracies the better. In the US, for instance, the ideological preferences of the President dictate his nominations to the Supreme Court Bench. Those prejudices in turn have influenced judicial pronouncements and majority-decisions. If all this have not become international issues, it’s only because lesser nations with lesser clout have not started citing these inherent and institutionalised anomalies in western democracy. Maldives does not boast to be one, though the efforts of the international community are to make it into one.

At swearing-in ceremony in May 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had spoken aboutneighbourhood first policy. Recently, he mentioned an India first policy during the recent City Hall speech in Delhi. Both meant different things in the case of Pakistan and China, which is also incidentally an Indian neighbour, bigger and possibly more powerful. But for the rest of India’s neighbours, there is a convergence of interests, not collusion, as Minister Sushma Swaraj too reportedly underscored at her meeting with Maldivian counterpart Asim. The rest of it all is Maldivian, good and proper personality-driven politics, from there is no escape in any democracy, western or not.

 

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