The government of India appears to have been caught napping in the Maldives on two counts.
First, it failed to foresee the implications of some arbitrary actions of former President Mohammed Nasheed such as the arrest of the Chief Judge of the Criminal Court and disciplinary action against a Sandhurst-trained colonel of the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF), who were perceived to be anti-Nasheed and advise him to desist from such actions. These actions antagonised the judiciary and created fissures in the MNDF and the police. These elements joined hands with anti-Nasheed protesters in forcing him to quit as the President.
Secondly, it failed to realise that despite his antagonising the judiciary and sections of the Police and the MNDF, Nasheed retained considerable popular support particularly among the younger generation and was in a position to take the battle against his opponents to the streets. Instead of keeping quiet till the street equations became clear and instead of desisting from any action that might be misinterpreted as granting legitimacy to the MNDF-engineered replacement of Nasheed by his Vice-President Mohammed Wahid Hasan, the government of India prematurely made statements that were interpreted in Maldives as amounting to the government of India’s abandoning its support to the democratically-elected President. When Nasheed’s supporters, with a defiant Nasheed at their head, took the battle against their opponents to the streets, the government of India found itself with its credibility badly weakened.
The result: the government of India’s traditional position as the sole arbiter of political fortunes in the Maldives has been badly damaged and a number of international actors from the UK, the US, the European Union and the United Nations have rushed to the Maldives to try their hand in internal peace-making, thereby marginalising the traditional role of India. Only China and Pakistan have not yet entered the political fray in the Maldives. If they do, that will be ultimate humiliation for Indian diplomacy at its southern door-step.
We had earlier lost our clout in Sri Lanka as a result of soft and reactive reflexes and we stand in danger of similarly losing our clout—even if we have not already lost it— in the Maldives due to similar apologetic reflexes lacking in robustness of anticipation and action.
In the Net world, one could notice articulation of condemnation of the government for failing to intervene militarily in the Maldives in support of the democratically-elected government. Unfavourable comparisons have been made with the robust response of Rajiv Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, to support the then President Abdul Gayoom against threats from foreign mercenaries suspected to be from the LTTE by sending Indian rapid action forces to the Maldives to neutralise the threat.
The hesitation of the government of India to send rapid action forces in response to a reported SOS from Nasheed is understandable because the present situation is qualitatively different from what prevailed in 1988. The threat to Nasheed was not from external forces, but from sections of his own MNDF and the police due to his perceived arbitrary style of governance. If the government of India had sent the security forces to the Maldives this time, they would have been called upon to act not against foreign mercenaries and their local supporters, but against sections of the political opposition in the Maldives and their supporters in the MNDF and the police.
Our security forces would have been able to overcome opposition from the MNDF and the police, but then what about managing the messy sequel— with the Maldivian security forces many of whose senior officers were trained by us turning hostile against India?
The criticism of the government of India for not intervening immediately through our armed forces is not quite justified. But there are a lot of actions short of direct military intervention which we could have taken— such as visibly and noisily strengthening our direct action capability in the vicinity of the Maldives to convey a message to the contending forces in the Maldives and to external forces that might be tempted to take advantage of the situation to undermine Indian influence that India was prepared to use its armed forces if needed to protect its nationals and interests and rushing a high level and stick-wielding emissary to Male to cajole, if possible, and to force, if necessary, the contending forces not to undermine democracy and not to allow any other external elements to come in and partake of the broth.
The government of India failed to take any of these actions and now finds itself with diminishing options in the face of an unpredictably evolving situation domestically and internationally. In 1988, the international community recognised implicitly that the Maldives was India’s concern and that India had every right to act according to its wisdom.
Even though the situation seems to be slipping out of our hands, we can still retrieve it provided we show leadership befitting a big power and act resolutely on the lines indicated above. Evidence of such leadership and resolute action is missing in Delhi.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies.