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Nasheed wants India to be vocal, will India listen?

Washington: The ousted president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, still puts his faith in India even though India sprinted to recognize the "new" government in Male as if in a diplomatic race. He thinks New Delhi should lead the effort to right the wrong.

Nasheed wants early elections before the current government of Mohamed Waheed has time to rig the vote and Islamic elements corner more political space. India would do well to listen and even better to publicly call for a new mandate.

In a conversation during his recent visit to Washington, Nasheed was careful not to criticize India. His concerns were mainly about the future and how to bring international pressure on Waheed to hold elections before the end of the year. He has been traveling to various capitals to drum up support and press his case.

The ousted president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, still puts his faith in India. PTI

Listening to him and reading about him, one can’t escape the feeling that he really “believes” in doing things the right way – giving the opposition parties space, building support by going door-to-door, standing up for religious moderation, opposing regressive tendencies of Wahabi Islam gushing into the islands from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and using the power of persuasion rather than punishment to change minds. He really tests the rhetoric about supporting democracy that continuously pours from democratic capitals.

Let us admit that the reading of the Maldivian situation leading up to the coup on on 7 February wasn’t the Indian diplomacy’s finest or sharpest effort. To abandon a president who during his tenure definitely tried to align his country with India on national security issues and shunned overtures from a certain large “frenemy” is just bad policy. And to add not too fine a point, Nasheed was the first democratically elected president of the Maldives. That is if values occupy a small corner in foreign policy considerations. Nasheed’s case was a rare example of India’s national interests and values coming together.

I asked Nasheed all the questions I had heard raised by Indian diplomats in the immediate aftermath of the coup: Why did he not ask for help clearly? Why did he resign and later claim it was a coup at gunpoint? Wasn’t it true that he had alienated many segments of Maldivian society and that it was a matter of time they coalesced together?

Here’s what Nasheed told me: “We came with a mandate to reform. We were not elected to just sit there. I did what I was supposed to do. I was not voted in to maintain the status quo. They pushed me out with brute force.” The build-up to what happened on 7 February was slow and simmering but Nasheed was doing all the right things. He actually believed -- perhaps naively -- in complete freedom of expression and gave space to the ultra religious Adhaalath Party which then ran amuck and promoted intolerance. Adhaalath was earlier a member of Nasheed’s coalition but formally broke with him late last year when he continually blocked its extremist agenda. (Does it ring a bell about how radicalization projects begin and how they should be arrested early?)

The Adhaalath Party declared Nasheed a heretic on 7 February and the next day asked people to rise up in arms against him in a press release that should go down as a textbook example of spreading hate and intimidating people. Take part in a jihad against the president or leave the country was the blunt message. Accept Waheed as a just ruler or forever be damned. Threats of violence were aplenty so when Nasheed says he resigned to avoid bloodshed on the streets, he should be believed.

The ouster of Judge Abdullah Mohamed in January – often cited by foreign diplomats as the final exhibit in Nasheed’s dossier of inexperience in running a coalition – was another good move if one believes even half the charges against him. Judicial overreach would be a polite way to describe what this judge was doing.

But today Nasheed is a chastened man. “Now we understand that it is one thing to topple a dictator (Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who ruled for 30 years) and another to root out the tentacles,” he says. “We didn’t purge the police or the military. We didn’t go on a witch-hunt. I could have held on by resorting to violence but I have never believed violence would do us any good.”

What did India read so quickly in the turbulent waters of the Maldives that it instantly granted recognition to Waheed? That an Adhaalat-beholden president is better in the long run? Incidentally, the new president has already made his leanings clear. I hope the Indian ambassador noted Waheed’s “rousing” speech in late February in which he freely exhorted the “mujaheddin” to defend the Islamic identity of the islands. Also worth noting is the recent Ministry of Islamic Affairs’ request to Waheed to allow the men in uniform to grow beards. (Again, does it sound familiar or rhyme with Zia…)

Even if one ignores the murky details of what the Indian ambassador in Male was doing two days before the coup and during it as the army and police turned mutinous, the larger issue of whether the Maldives is becoming the latest outpost of Wahabism should be of deep concern to New Delhi. All independent accounts of what led to Nasheed’s ouster give the dominant role to Islamists and their dangerous agenda.

To be fair, India had some quick second thoughts and sent Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai to Male to ask for early elections. New Delhi began asking questions soon but in all honesty shouldn’t it also investigate the early but poor assessments? If we can’t read the neighbors right, we might as well rest our case.

“India is pushing for elections this year. I understand the difficulty of the government of India in how much it can push before being accused of interference,” Nasheed told me. “The government of India recognised the new government very, very quickly. It is difficult to understand why they did it.”

The US policy following the coup is just as misplaced. Washington recognised the new government and is currently waiting for the inquiry into the events leading up to the coup to be completed. While the Indian position has changed, the US is “dragging its feet,” according to Nasheed.

He feels that if India becomes more vocal and gives clarity on the situation publicly, it would have a salutary effect on others as well. India’s voice counts on the Maldives. We are neighbours after all. As Nasheed said: “The story has not ended yet. It will go on.”