India can’t forget that Nasheed first opened the gates for China. New Delhi must not repeat the mistake of 2013, when it rushed in to legitimise Abdulla Yameen.
The Maldives crisis is a reflection of an evolving new playbook in South Asia, of the limits of playing the China card and the consequences of overplaying it.
The notion that somehow other Indian Ocean stakeholder powers such as India and the US will back off or renegotiate old terms because of strong Chinese outreach must now be buried. The strategic value of such double play, the Maldives situation tells us, has its political limitations.
But does that mean Indian troops should be surfing into Maldives? No, simply because it serves no purpose. There are many ways to exert power, shape and influence events, other than old-school strong-arm intervention tactics.
The chaos in Maldives shows that domestic politics provides its moments and fissures to leverage a situation to one’s advantage. And maybe, therefore, a temporary state of crisis isn’t always a strategic negative.
There’s no doubt that the Maldives under President Abdulla Yameen has gravitated towards China. Today, nearly 22 per cent of tourists into the island nation are Chinese, its contractors are building big turnkey infrastructure projects, while they look to cut deals to take over smaller islands.
But is Mohamed Nasheed the natural choice to replace him? The fact is that China made its big entry into the Maldives under Nasheed’s watch. It was during his time that China opened its embassy in Male and started expanding its presence.
India must know that Nasheed is yet to prove himself a reliable partner, unlike, say, Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina. It can’t go to the extent of sending in its troops to secure him. In fact, New Delhi must tread with caution and not make the same mistake it did when Yameen came to power.
Giving Yameen legitimacy
Yameen had secured a controversial electoral victory over Nasheed, winning in just the second round with the help of a favourable order from the Supreme Court. India, however, was quick to recognise him, with then-PM Manmohan Singh being among the first to give him a congratulatory phone call.
He made his first foreign visit to India, even though Nasheed cried foul. And yet, as time passed, Yameen, riding on the legitimacy India had extended, charted a wholly different course, disregarding Indian security interests.
Yameen was a bet that went terribly wrong. India has paid a heavy price for that haste, and for that reason, must not rush in now to back anyone in particular.
Let’s also not forget that Nasheed was tried for arresting a judge, and here Yameen has arrested the chief justice Abdulla Saeed, along with another Supreme Court judge, and his own half-brother, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. So, should he not also face similar consequences?
This is tricky territory, and Yameen most likely has overstepped his constitutional remit. Both precedent and facts are stacked against him.
He has tried to make amends by way of the second notification to his diktat declaring emergency in the country. This lifts restriction on the constitutional clause that affirms the Supreme Court’s primacy to interpret the constitution.
But much water has flown under the bridge already. The problem really has been Yameen’s own approach to the presidency, like charging and arresting literally all those who could oppose him over the past few years. This started with Nasheed, then Vice-President Ahmed Adeeb.
He then went after Jumhoory party head Qasim Ibrahim, and had his son Ibrahim Qasim arrested Tuesday. Similarly, in February 2016, the Adhaalath Party leader Sheikh Imran Abdullah was sentenced to 12 years in jail.
Charges have ranged from terrorism, conspiracy to kill Yameen, to graft and bribery. It’s important to note than the higher judiciary played along with Yameen through these actions, until he turned his gaze to the Supreme Court itself.
Yameen couldn’t quite anticipate such a forceful comeback from the chief justice. The political play ran quite deep as the Supreme Court found support to get assertive, as it ordered the release of political prisoners.
As a result, Yameen now appears isolated both institutionally and politically, despite his recent overture to India through the visit of his foreign minister. India has done well to stay away until now. It must wait to see what this churn may throw up and then take a call if it must.
Yameen made many promises to India, which he did not keep. He agreed to a joint defence action plan that he did not implement. Indian companies have been facing a difficult time in Maldives despite his claims of being fair. Indian projects have got shut while Chinese businesses have prospered.
The announcement of a free trade agreement with China was, perhaps, the last straw. It was a provocation strong enough to rip open the soft underbelly of Maldivian internal politics, which in reality is the fiefdom of a few elite families.
At the end of the day, India as a regional power may see better benefit from a Maldives in crisis and chaos, rather than the kind of stability Yameen seems to offer with Chinese help.