Maldives: Did India really get it wrong?
N Sathiya Moorthy
13 February 2012
In the early hours of the leadership-change in Maldives last week, a section of the Indian seemed to claim that New Delhi was caught unawares of the developments. As their focus remained on the fast-changing ground situation, nothing substantial emerged out of this non-starter of a debate. However, a full day later, when President Mohammed Nasheed went to town claiming he was replaced by an 'army mutiny', some strategic analysts too joined issue, saying that New Delhi might have over-reacted by recognising too early the successor Government of President Mohammed Waheed Hassan. The pendulum thus swung from one end to the other, but the insinuations of perceived Indian inadequacy in diplomacy and decision-making remained.
India has a robust diplomatic presence in Maldives, acknowledged by the host State and with acceptance from all sections of the polity as well. The number of parties and the frequency of contacts may have increased with the introduction of multi-party democracy in that country in 2008. Institutional relations and dependence too are acknowledged by both sides, and problems are often sorted out even before they become known. These include those issues pertaining to the internal dynamics in Maldives, where a pro-active political approach by various stake-holders have pushed the country from one precipice to another over the past couple of years. India, as a matured democracy that has gone through various phases of similar problems in perception nearer home, has had a lot to offer in terms of shared experience and exposure to multi-layered and multi-lateral democracy. It did not fail the infant democratic sibling.
Bilateral economic relations between the two countries have remained strong, independent of the change of Government and political system in Maldives. New Delhi has never shied away from its regional responsibility in this regard, and always acceded to successive calls from Maldives to the effect. Given the peculiarities of Maldivian geography, New Delhi has standing orders for all Government departments to automatically exempt Maldives, along with Bhutan, from all kinds of export-bans that might come into force from time to time. The gesture is well-appreciated by the Government, polity and the people of Maldives, who depend on the Tuticorin port in southern Tamil Nadu to deliver almost every item of daily need and beyond -- from food articles to medicines, school and office stationery to sand required for the construction of homes and tourist resorts -- the mainstay of the nation's economy.
After the emergence of Maldives as a multi-party democracy, the two countries have also been constantly discussing capacity-building and institution-building in the islands-nation. Indian assistance was sought and given constantly. Yet, democratic transition and/or transformation took an unnatural fast pace as President Nasheed constantly pushed for reforms in every sector and the arm of the Government. The nation's entrenched system was too slow to absorb the changes, and motives were often read into them. For instance, Maldives does not have enough qualified legal professionals to be appointed Judges. The inherited legal position also pertained to the US model, where Judges do not retire. The same is true of the elevation of the Vice-President for the residual period of the presidency when there is a vacancy at the top. So when crises appear, the system does not have ready solutions, as intended by the young and pro-active leadership of President Nasheed.
The British-brokered scheme for democratic change-over was again borrowed from the US system rather than the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy with which at least the facilitator was conversant. It was all done with incumbent President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in mind -- first to accommodate his political aspirations of being able to contest the presidential polls under the new Constitution, and then to ensure that Parliament had the powers to act as a check to his unbridled powers, under the existing scheme of the time. None cared to read the fine-print, for instance, as the brand-new 2008 Constitution now provides for the elevated Vice-President to name his own Vice-President for the residual period, but with approval from the People's Majlis or Parliament. Elsewhere under near-similar situations, the Speaker of Parliament is constitutionally-named as the natural choice -- or, other solutions are offered.
The new Constitution is as dynamic as any other, to accept amendments as and when the need arose and/or was felt as the nation learnt its early democratic lessons. The standard procedure has been for constitutional amendments to be passed by a two-thirds majority in the Legislature, at times accompanied by a national referendum. Yet, the adversarial approach adopted by the political players in Parliament and outside early on meant that even where everyone acknowledged the need for early tinkering, they would not agree to an acceptable solution passing through Parliament.
Having adopted the Constitution in 1950, India, for instance, had the First Amendment passed in about a year's time. The ruling party at the time also had a run of both Parliament and most State Legislatures, from where some of the constitutional changes needed clearance. The way the politics ahead of the parliamentary polls was played out in Maldives in 2009, there was no way President Nasheed's Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) could have mustered a simple majority. A two-thirds share for the party was a far cry. If anything, it made erstwhile allies from the immediate past the worst enemies of the infant Government.
Options before India
With President Nasheed having announced his resignation for the whole world to see on the television, and reports from the national capital of Male indicating that some police personnel had joined an Opposition rally seeking his resignation, it was a Catch-22 situation for friends of Maldives. A full day later, President Nasheed went to town saying that the resignation was forced on him by an 'army mutiny'. Independent of the delayed claims by the MDP, by recognising the new Government as it did at the first available opportunity, India ensured that its engagement with the Maldivian State and political players remained intact.
Such encouragement also meant that the constitutional processes went through smoothly. In the absence of formal recognition of any of the international players that mattered, there would have been a constitutional deadlock and chaos, if nothing else. Throughout the transition, there was thus no talk of the armed forces taking over power. If anything, reports indicated that the Maldivian National Democratic Force (MNDF) did not want to get involved in civilian policing duties any more than it had been called upon to do over the previous years. That was possibly also the point over which President Nasheed (had to) quit.
As the nation whose interests intertwined with those of Maldives and as a regional power that has a responsibility in such matters, if only to a limited, non-interfering extent, New Delhi had its job cut out. In recent years, there has been an increasing international recognition of the Indian role and responsibility in the region. The general complaint has been that India was not assertive. New Delhi understands the regional psyche in such matters. India also understands its inherent limitations as a big and growing power as it knows its intrinsic strengths. Unlike the assertive West or the jack-boot of the erstwhile Soviet era nations, whose characteristics flowed from their respective circumstances, staying low-profile and getting things done has been the Indian way of doing things. It is not for New Delhi to be seen as doing things instead, which however the stake-holders concerned understand and acknowledge, too.
Big players in Maldives
It is true that US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake rushed to Maldives soon after the crisis took the international community by surprise. India too did not wish it on Maldives, but had been seeing it coming -- and was also working to try and defuse the situation. The fact remained that Blake was in the region at the time. As US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, he was co-accredited to Maldives in his immediate previous posting. Prior to that, he was the Deputy Chief of Mission in the US Embassy in New Delhi. As such, he was a South Asia hand, whose presence in the region, the US would not have want to miss out, to make an on-the-spot assessment of the evolving situation in Maldives. Like this time round, at the height of the Maldivian constitutional crisis in mid-2010, Blake happened to be in the region and rushed to Male to study the situation first-hand.
Independent of its expanding, and at times expansive interests in South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) for its own strategic reasons, the US has been increasingly recognising India's primacy in the neighbourhood. Both in 2010 and now in 2012, the US position has been near-similar to the Indian position, but with variables added for reasons of its own. After India, the US was the first country to recognise the status quo in Maldives, encouraging the home-front stake-holders to move on from there. That includes a suggestion for addressing Nasheed's allegations regarding a coup, but the recognition for the Waheed Government had come from Washington before Blake had set foot on Maldives.
Germany, from among the European powers, was the first to demand an independent probe into events leading to President Nasheed quitting office. As has become noticeable, Germany in the recent past is seen as being pro-active in South Asian affairs. The UK followed with a near-similar demand. UN and Commonwealth teams that were landing in Male, at the invitation of President Nasheed when he was still in office, have taken back their views. The Commonwealth, headed by the UK for historic reasons, has also since decided to send a ministerial team to Maldives to study the situation. The British High Commissioner for Sri Lanka has also been seized of the matter, so do his counterparts, similarly co-accredited to Maldives, based either in Colombo or New Delhi.
As is known, the UK has closer ties with Maldives, both as the erstwhile colonial power and more recently because of personal linkages. The Conservative Party in the UK has been the mentor of Nasheed's Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). Tories' election strategists helped fashion the Nasheed campaign in 2008. As President, Nasheed continued to have British advisors on his staff, particularly on the emerging Maldivian concerns on the ecological front, running up to the 'Copenhagen Summit' and beyond. The MDP at various stages of its evolution had reportedly sought the help of experienced counterparts from India in structuring the organisation. In tune with New Delhi's official policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of friendly countries, major political parties in India politely declined the request.
The limited Indian recognition for the MDP came about only after the party was recognised under the Maldivian scheme after the commencement of the new Constitution of 2008. From then on and more so after the election of President Nasheed, bilateral relations have remained robust and been growing. Despite intermittent and inevitable hiccups, the balanced Indian approach has ensured that New Delhi is respected and trusted by all sections of the Maldivian polity and society, and is accepted as a natural choice for facilitating processes aimed at breaking constitutional and political deadlocks that have become inevitable with the advent of multi-party democracy. There is nothing to suggest that it would be otherwise, now or later. For, the maturing of democracy in Maldives also entails political stake-holders in the country acknowledging and appreciating the different positions being taken by various international and regional players in the context of constant political changes happening on their home front.
Could India have acted differently?
At the height of the Maldivian crisis, sections of the Indian media had suggested that New Delhi should despatch Indian military to stabilise the situation. Parallels were also drawn with the 1988 coup-bid in Maldives, which India helped to neutralise. The current situation in Maldives has been brewing for some time, and there is nothing to suggest that New Delhi had not foreseen the possibilities -- or, not initiated standard procedures. Suggestions on military intervention, as had happened in 1988, are fraught with consequences that are not well understood. The incumbent President was still in office at the time, and the Indian Navy and Air Force were despatched to assist the Maldivian armed forces, at the explicit invitation of the man in power. Easing the situation for India was the fact that the coup involved mercenaries from the Tamil militia, PLOTE, in neighbouring Sri Lanka, though funded by a Maldivian businessman -- and not sections of the Maldivian armed forces, as is being said in the present instance.
Against this, any intervention by New Delhi under the circumstances which President Nasheed has narrated after laying down would have meant that the Indian armed forces would have to engage at least a section of the MNDF and the 'rogue elements' of their police force. Considering that the Nasheed team has not named anyone of the officer-rank in the MNDF as being part of the alleged coup-bid, India would have been hard-pressed to justify any military intervention at the time and stage mentioned, unless of course accompanied by a similar expression of intent or invitation from their brass. Parallels would then have been drawn with the disastrous 'IPKF expedition' in neighbouring Sri Lanka (1987-89). It would have entailed -- as was the case with the LTTE in Sri Lanka in the jungles -- the Indian soldiers having to take on adversaries from island after island.
China is another unspoken factor being hinted at in the current Maldivian context. As may be recalled, China opened its Embassy in Male a few days before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was to visit Maldives for the SAARC Summit in November last, followed by a bilateral meeting with President Nasheed. True to form, and not belying expectations, Beijing has maintained a stoic silence through the evolving situation in Maldives. It is not impossible that China would have considered its options under such a volatile condition as prevailing in Maldives. That should at least have been the premise on which the Indian policy-maker would have to consider his options in an evolving situation. If that were to have happened, critics nearer home would well have blamed New Delhi for not being alive and pro-active to the possibilities, so on and so forth.
Where from now?
President Waheed has begun well by promising to form a 'national unity government', a premise contained in the Indian position. While tempers were sure to run high on the streets after such a sudden change-over, particularly considering that the MDP cadres were youthful and pro-active, the party leadership has since ensured that normalcy returned to the streets across the country. The situation in southern Addu City and Atoll were said to be particularly bad. It was here that the SAARC Summit was held in November -- an imaginative initiative by President Nasheed which made the people in the one-time rebel-stronghold of the Sixties feeling wanted by their nation, and recognised for their involvement and contribution to the massive effort that Maldives with its limited human resources could not have pulled off with such elan and appreciation.
At the same time, the end of the Summit also witnessed some Addu residents, designated Islamic fundamentalists, destroying one SAARC monument after another, donated by member-nations as part of the established procedure, all in the name of religion. In a way, it was the rallying-point of sorts for religious groups in the country to call for President Nasheed's resignation. It also provided the focal-point for diverse Opposition political egos to coalesce against the Government through the December 23 rally last year. Allowing a vacuum to precipitate at the top under the circumstances would have been unthinkable for any country that understands contemporary Maldives as India does.
Having welcomed a 'national unity government' as the only viable alternative under the circumstances as New Delhi did, any suggestion hinting at the possible return of the status quoante are fraught with consequences, not only for the future, but also for the MDP joining the proposed Cabinet in the foreseeable future. It is not as if the MDP could be expected to shed its political position and walk into the new Government with open arms, but the other way round, it would have been untenable for anyone to promise the party a probe into the immediate past and urge it to join the successor-government at the same time.
Heeding to demands from elsewhere, President Waheed has also offered an independent probe into the circumstances leading to President Nasheed quitting office. He, however, has denied any part in the conspiracy aimed at toppling President Nasheed, as alleged by the latter. As Ambassador Blake has argued, independent institutions in Maldives, like the judiciary and the Election Commission, are not in a position to ensure free and fair elections, as yet -- as if to answer Nasheed's demand for fresh presidential polls in two months. Blake's argument draws from the long-held belief of the MDP and President Nasheed, particularly concerning the judiciary at all levels.
As such, what shape would the probe to which President Waheed is now committed would take remains to be seen. He himself is non-committal on this score, for understandable reasons of having to give it some serious thought, and also to get it passed through the Cabinet, which he has named only afterward. Considering that polarisation of the society and polity are near-complete in Maldives at the time, how President Waheed could put together a local probe team to the entire satisfaction of all stake-holders. Every point, not only from the terms of reference of the commission but even its life-term would be disputed, what with presidential polls being anyway due next year, and the MDP setting a two-month deadline for the same, already.
It is true that the MDP is hurt that India did not act as it may have anticipated. The party may have to look inward to as to what might have gone wrong, particularly in terms of assessments of the emerging situation and the consequent communication required under the circumstances. This is more so considering that India-Maldivian relations have gained from strength to further strength during President Nasheed's term. He, however, has since said that he was disappointed with the positions taken by India and the US in regard to the successor-government, and that his party would continue with its demands for President Waheed's resignation and fresh elections.
India has always maintained and demonstrated that it worked with constitutionally-mandated Governments in third countries, including Maldives. New Delhi would thus have no problem engaging with a future Government in Maldives, just as it did not have issues dealing with President Nasheed when he assumed office after a long innings of Indian cooperation with President Gayoom. As for Indian concerns pertaining to China and possible emergence of Islamic fundamentalism in Maldives, as often hinted by analysts nearer home through the past days, New Delhi is part of an informal international grouping where other players too share similar concerns.
(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)