Former president Mohamed Nasheed told ThePrint, ‘We have always been pro-India and pro-South Asia’.
As the people of Maldives voted Sunday night, paradise was regained. Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, popularly known as Ibu, roundly defeated the outgoing pro-China president Abdulla Yameen and returned South Asia’s smallest nation to its own regional umbrella.
Former president Mohamed Nasheed, who has divided his time between jail in the Maldives and exile in Sri Lanka and the UK since he was ousted in a police mutiny in 2012, told ThePrint over the phone: “We have always been pro-India and pro-South Asia. Now we have to see how we expand our definition of that relationship”.
But before Delhi could pop the bubbly or its RSS-prescribed equivalent at the recovery of the Indian Ocean across which the Maldives with its 26 coral atolls and 1192 islands is situated, paradise was being lost in the Himalayan republic of Nepal.
Just as Yameen was conceding defeat in Male Monday, officials in Kathmandu confirmed that the K.P. Oli government had decided to re-contract the Chinese Gezhouba Group to build the 1200 MW Budhi Gandaki hydroelectric dam over a river by the same name.
The Budhi Gandaki project has an interesting recent history. Over the last one year it has been awarded and cancelled three times – in June 2017, former Communist prime minister Prachanda awarded it to the Chinese; this was cancelled by the Nepali Congress PM Sher Bahadur Deuba in November, and re-awarded again by Oli Friday.
Importantly, the Chinese company has promised to generate the entire funds for the Budhi Gandaki, water resources minister Barshaman Pun said.
As part of its ambitious plan to become a world power, China has made no bones about its determination to expand influence in South Asia. Pakistan has long been a client state. In Nepal, Beijing took full advantage of the anger against the India-inspired blockade in 2015-16, which nevertheless sought to bring the Madhesi discrimination into the limelight. In Bhutan, Chinese troops moved to build a road across the Doklam plateau that would bring it much closer to the Indian territory. And in the Maldives, it began to throw good money at Yameen and at the same time protested the name of the Indian Ocean.
But of course the situation in the Maldives is the exact reverse of that in Bhutan. In Doklam, Indian and Chinese troops were eyeball-to-eyeball for 72 days, while a solution was found enabling both sides to save face and return to status quo. Yameen, on the other hand, has gone from strength to strength on the back of Chinese support in the Maldives, refusing to extend Indian work visas and treating India’s ambassador Akhilesh Mishra with barely concealed discourtesy. Delhi was faced with several tough calls.
The first decision was to put the US and the European Union front and centre of its Maldives policy, a bit like Shikhandi in the Mahabharata, while Arjun unleashed his arsenal of arrows from behind.
Not that the Americans didn’t protest, privately. They pointed out that all Delhi had done was to issue four critical statements on Yameen all year, while they were being forced to do all the heavy lifting – threatening sanctions as well as threatening to refuse visas for Maldivian officials visiting the EU space.
Meanwhile, Delhi assuaged Beijing: There was no question of India backing the Maldives or anyone else at the cost of antagonising China.
Then there was the art of flanking the enemy. So in 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi cancelled a visit to the Maldives – it is the only South Asian nation he has not visited so far – but went to all its other neighbours in the Indian Ocean, Seychelles, Sri Lanka and Mauritius. In the last few months, the Seychelles president has visited Delhi, while Ram Nath Kovind has travelled to Port Louis.
Meanwhile, Mahinda Rajapaksa, former Sri Lankan president who has done more than anyone else to get Colombo into a debt trap with Beijing, was warmly felicitated during a trip to Delhi last week. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is expected next month.
Ibu Solih’s win in the Maldives is magnificent by any stretch of the imagination. He and Nasheed are said to have strategised on a daily basis, striking upon the idea of engaging political rivals, both former president Abdul Gayoom and head of the Jumhooree Party Qasim Ibrahim, so as to form a united front against Yameen. But the fact remains that it was the clear, calm and dependable Ibu who not only stitched the coalition on the ground, but also enthused the electorate to come out and vote.
Modi can certainly exult in the fact that the Indian Ocean belongs to India again. The two military helicopters, stationed in the strategically located islands of Lhamu and Addu since 2013, along with 48 navy personnel will most likely now stay – Yameen had told India to take them back when the contract expired end-June. Indian work visas, especially in the high-profile tourism industry, should now be extended.
Of course, the problem with exultation arises when it is either premature or one-sided or both. For example, the cancellation of the India-Pakistan foreign minister-level talks last week within 24 hours of confirming it. Apart from having scrambled egg on its face, India’s decision makes it look indeterminate, insecure and uptight. Could those be the markings of an Indian Ocean power?
This has been a bad week for Indian foreign policy. This has been a good week for Indian foreign policy too. Pakistan makes you look bad. The Maldives makes you look good. Where you stand this week depends a lot on where you want to sit.
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