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India has a breather in Maldives, but for how long

By Rajeev Sharma

India seems to have finally brokered a behind-the-scenes deal with important stakeholders in the deeply fractious polity of Maldives as former president Mohamed Nasheed chose to end his 11-day stay in the Indian High Commission in Male on 23 February evening. Nasheed walked out of the Indian embassy at 4.15pm of his own volition just as he had walked in eleven days ago of his own volition.

New Delhi gave clear signal of its do’s and don’ts to Male by promptly issuing a statement saying, "It is hoped that with this development the former president will again resume his social and political life." The statement also said: "The Government of India urges all parties to maintain peace and calm and hopes to continue its positive engagement in the spirit of the close and friendly relations between the two countries."

Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed. AP

Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed. AP

But is it curtains for the Maldivian theater of the absurd? Does it signal the end of the Indian diplomatic embarrassment? Has Indian diplomacy finally had a taste of victory in this tiny atoll of Indian Ocean that has given many a headache to the movers and shakers of the Indian government? It remains to be seen whether the Indians have sewn up an effective long-term arrangement of peace and cordiality among the warring political factions of Maldives or whether it is just a lull before another storm.

It does not happen very often in international diplomacy when a former head of a state seeks refuge in a foreign mission in own country. This is precisely what Nasheed did on 13 February when he barged into the premises of Indian High Commission in Male along with his supporters and demanded to see High Commissioner DM Mulay who was not in the embassy premises.

In the process Nasheed successfully dragged India into the cesspool of Maldivian domestic politics, highly surcharged because of the impending presidential elections in September 2013.

The young First Secretary was stunned to see the former president in front of him suddenly and nervously worked the phones. Nobody in Male or New Delhi had an idea that First Secretary’s office was going to be Nasheed’s make-shift home for the next eleven days. The Indian diplomatic establishment was in a tailspin as the Indian High Commission in Male was saddled with a controversial guest whom the Indians could not turn out.

Expectedly, anti-India elements in the Maldivian political set-up started launching broadsides against India and criticized New Delhi for interfering in its domestic affairs. Thus began one of the acutest diplomatic embarrassments for India in recent times and that too at the hands of a tiny atoll in Indian Ocean having a largely Muslim population of just four lakh, smaller than that of a district in Delhi.

While the Nasheed sanctuary-seeking episode also presented India with yet another chance to redeem its mistakes of last year when India was reduced to being a passive onlooker as a soft coup was staged in Male and Nasheed resigned from the presidency, it also posed a stiff challenge to the Indian diplomatic establishment. India could not afford the situation to linger on.

When Nasheed had completed one week of his stay in the Indian mission in Male and refused to budge despite pleadings from top officials of the embassy as well the Ministry of External Affairs’ headquarters in New Delhi, the MEA was forced to rush a high-level diplomatic team led by Harsh Vardhan Shringla, joint secretary in-charge of the BSM (Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Myanmar) Division of the MEA.

Shringla held a series of meetings with the officials of the Government of Maldives and all other stake holders. Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai choreographed the entire operation from wherever he was while External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid also kept a close tab on the tortuous negotiations.

Maldivian President Mohamed Waheed's office went on record as saying that Male had issued a strong note of protest to the Indian High Commissioner for "harbouring a fugitive in the embassy premise from where Nasheed is inciting and calling for unrest and violence in the streets". New Delhi stoutly denied the charge and issued a statement that "no political meetings and activities have been allowed in the mission premises during the presence of the former president".

The main tenet of the India-brokered deal between Nasheed and the government of President Waheed Hassan seems to be an unwritten, informal guarantee that Nasheed will not be persecuted and will be allowed to run for the presidential election in September. However, there is no guarantee that things will play out as per the Indian script. Maldives is increasingly triggering diplomatic crises for India. There are many a slip between the cup and the lip between now and September.

Nasheed has many influential detractors. President Waheed is just one of them. Even Waheed is a veritable 'Shikhandi' in the Maldivian politics. Nasheed’s enemy number one is the Machiavellian former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who has been backer-in-chief of Waheed. Actually, it is Gayoom who has been shooting at Nasheed from Waheed’s shoulders.

Maldives-watchers say that Gayoom is hell bent on keeping Nasheed out of the presidential race by hook or crook. Therefore it is a question of when, not if, the next crisis in Maldives will unfold. It is only a matter of time when India finds itself up against yet another diplomatic challenge in Maldives.

The Indian diplomatic establishment will do well to ensure that its next involvement in Maldives is well anticipated and well structured, not a fire-fighting mission as it has been at least thrice since last year, the other two incidents being Nasheed’s ouster and the GMR episode.

The Indian challenge in Maldives has magnified enormously in recent years for two reasons: (i) the rapidly increasing presence and influence of China and Pakistan in Maldives; and (ii) recent signs of increasing Wahaabisation of this Islamic archipelago.

India has traditionally had strong influence in Maldives. The Indian influence was manifested when India launched Operation Cactus in 1988 and sent a small military contingent to liberate Male from a bunch of PLOTE rebels from Sri Lanka who had seized power for a few hours. The Indian diplomatic clout in Maldives has substantially eroded since then.

While nobody can be a political soothsayer and predict what may happen in Maldives, two positive developments must be flagged. These indicate some sort of synergy between the Nasheed and Waheed camps. Shauna Aminath, president of the Maldivian Democratic Party youth wing, tweeted a statement from Nasheed saying: "I believe that even on issues that we disagree on, we can reach a compromise with the Maldivian government."

Secondly, just two days ago, Waheed made some remarks in an interview to prominent Maldives daily Haveeru which must have been music to the Indian diplomats’ ears. Waheed said that the Indian High Commission had no choice but to let Nasheed stay at the chancery as it must extend courtesies to a former head of state. Waheed also said that Nasheed's stay at the Indian High Commission will not undermine the relations between Indian and Maldives.

Will India have a breather from the Maldivian roller-coaster? Watch this space.

The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist-author and a strategic affairs analyst who can be reached at bhootnath004@yahoo.com.