Maldives on edge: India must be firm

The current situation in the island state is fraught with risks for Indian interests.

In December 2017, the government of President Abdulla Yameen in the Maldives had sought to punish the Indian ambassador for meeting three local officials — not at all an irregular act for a diplomatic representative, specially when Male continues to formally proclaim an “India First” policy — about the same time that it was ramming a free trade agreement with China through its Parliament without discussion, signalling its strong tilt in favour of Beijing.

On that occasion, New Delhi had officially pleaded with Male to keep Indian “sensitivities” in mind. In the face of the present looming crisis in the strategically-located Indian Ocean island nation, with its Supreme Court ordering the freeing of political prisoners, including former President Mohammed Nasheed, and President Yameen appearing to defiantly ignore the directive, India appears to have taken a stronger line, although it’s the follow-through that is important.

Without bothering with diplomatic language, New Delhi asked the government in Male to act in accordance with its own Supreme Court’s order. Perhaps it found the freedom to do so as the United States, Britain, Australia and Canada were doing the same. However, these nations don’t have the same immediate interest in the Maldives, a member of the Saarc grouping which of late has been surreptitiously promoting Islamist activities in cahoots with Pakistani elements, as India does. As such, India needs to be ready with an action plan to goad Male in the direction it wants, that is to bring the nation back to the democratic track.

For now, that seems the only way to cut its losses in the context of the strategic disadvantage it suffered of late due to the Yameen government undermining India’s position on a consistent basis and advancing China’s.

After the Supreme Court ordered the release of political prisoners, and subsequently restored the status of Opposition MPs who were disqualified on account of an anti-defection provision, Mr Yameen’s party appears to be in a minority. Perhaps that’s why the President has suddenly stopped a Parliament session from continuing, and given the impression of issuing a threat to Supreme Court judges at a rally. Given this, it’s hard to take his statement at face value that he is ready to call a fresh election.

India needs to steer the necessary processes in the Maldives in that direction, and ensure that everyone, including Mr Nasheed, is free to contest and no obstacles will be placed in their path. This may call for diplomatic and security-related moves.

The current situation in the island state is fraught with risks for Indian interests. Given the faceoff between the Supreme Court and the presidency, there should be no surprise if the internal situation blows up and street fighting erupts, instigated by Islamist elements with the encouragement of pro-government lobbies.

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