Maldives crisis: India must reassess intervention strategy, look to counter 'proxy' Chinese influence

For a rather tiny set of islands, the Maldives seem to be able to garner more than a fair amount of news, and not always in the best way. This week, one of the close associates of President Abdulla Yameen, member of Parliament Ahmed Nihan, was briefly detained, and then refused entry into India.

This incident occurred against a backdrop of several recent events that topped earlier tense relations between the two countries. On 2 June, the Maldivian Inland Revenue Authority slapped a $20 million tax on GMR, the Indian company which had been unceremoniously told to pack up and withdraw from an ongoing project.

On 5 June, the Maldivian government asked the Indian government to take back a second helicopter that had been gifted to the archipelago, a few months after an earlier aircraft – both gifted by India – had been rejected. All of this in the background of a chain of events, which had pitted India against China in policy towards the Maldives, and talk of military intervention was rife.

Maldives crisis: India must reassess intervention strategy, look to counter proxy Chinese influence

File image of Maldives president Abdulla Yameen and Chinese premier Xi Jinping. Reuters

In the event, India did not intervene, and China backed off. The Maldives government, however, went on, in its merry way, keeping its political opponents in jail on terrorism charges and achieving a near complete control over all institutions, including the judiciary.

As is often the case, there are usually more than two sides to most issues. Ahmed Nihan of the Progressive Peoples Party of Maldives and close aide to the president seems to have come to India for medical treatment, together with the sister and brother in law of the president. While the rest of the group were allowed in, Nihan was not. Since then, the irate MP has been complaining about bullying by India, with his supporters backing this with a Twitter campaign.

As far as bullying goes, Nihan has shown himself to be well versed with that tactic. Earlier, images of Nihan spitting out a mouthful of water on a female colleague in Parliament had gone viral. As a member of the inner coterie, he has to sooner than later, accept some responsibility for flouting all legal and democratic norms, by jailing political opponents and eroding the Supreme Court.

Demonstrating an excess of loyalty, he had stated earlier that his party is looking at ways to keep Yameen in power well beyond 2023 when his two terms legally end. No, Nihan is hardly a poster boy for legal or social behavioural norms.

Meanwhile, his head of state Yameen is under fire from various quarters. India did "welcome" the lifting of emergency in March, but added a rider that would certainly have irked its president. The statement noted, "We, therefore, call upon the government of the Maldives to restore all Articles of the Constitution, to allow the Supreme Court and other branches of the judiciary to operate in full independence, to promote and support the free and proper functioning of Parliament, to implement the Supreme Court's Full Bench order of 1 February, 2018, and to support a genuine political dialogue with all opposition parties".

Other countries have echoed the same sentiment, including Canada, the European Union, and the United States. However, as bitter Maldivian observers note, it hasn't gone much beyond issuing statements stating the obvious, including restoration of democratic norms etc.

This talky talk has little effect on the ground, while countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE and China continue to provide the regime with investment funds.

Recently, Saudi Arabia and the UAE provided $160 million to the regime even before he had lifted the emergency. Speculation is rife that the Saudi largesse is accounted for by the fact that Riyadh also wants a political role in the tussle in the Maldives, and is getting precisely that with its burgeoning investments.

China is, of course, all over. Research by Gateway House, a prestigious Mumbai based think tank, indicates that just three of the large Chinese projects account for $1.5 billion, which accounts for about 40 percent of the Maldives' budget. That's clout, and its weighed in favour of the present government. In short, President Yameen seems to have a lot of friends and "well-wishers", none of whom are willing to twist his arm in a headlong rush to power.

As a regional power, major countries like the US expect India to "do the needful" as government files may put it in inelegant but precise English. But there's the rub. India's option of intervention – which rose up suddenly in the media and died equally quickly – seems to be no longer on the table. Sober heads seem to have prevailed over those who wanted to go in with guns blazing.

Here's the problem. It is amply clear that the emergency has been lifted because President Yameen is confident that he has corralled the entire Opposition, including the court.

In upcoming presidential elections, he undoubtedly will have the upper hand. This is a reality that India has to deal with. Besides, there is no gain in saying that a successor to Yameen will be markedly different.

Remember that it was another, President Mohamed Waheed Hassan, who threw out GMR, the Indian company, out of the airport project which was later given to the Chinese. Even earlier, it was President Nasheed – who is now accusing the Chinese of taking over 16-17 islands for its own use and ranting against Chinese investment – who first allowed the Chinese to open an embassy in the country in 2011 despite Indian reservations. The essence of diplomacy is that you work with what you've got, however bad, even while using all levers to 'mould' the relationship.

The problem arises from the fact that there haven't been a lot of levers in the past. The helicopters manufactured by the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited have a record of falling out of the sky. Ecuador, for instance, cancelled an order for seven such aircraft, after a series of crashes.

Though India has also provided aid generously, particularly after the crises of the tsunami. In recent years, there has been a deliberate effort to increase the Indian footprint with daily flights to Male, and investments in infrastructure. The External Affairs Ministry has also increased significantly its allocations for Male for the financial year.

None of this, however, seems to cut any ice with President Yameen. Instead, he has also begun to stall some Indian projects like a police academy, by denying entry permits to officials working on it. Clearly, the president and his coterie have assessed that they have little fear of a military intervention or arm twisting from India. Besides, India baiting may even be a platform to shore up the president's image as a "strong man". With presidential elections due, such image building is useful.

There are no two opinions on the fact that the Maldives is a sensitive area in terms of the country's national security. There is also a general consensus that India has to carry out some 'push back' to a country that is less than the size of the state of Uttar Pradesh. First, a military intervention may still be on the table, though it will almost certainly be messy. The legal basis for a humanitarian intervention can be found if the situation takes a turn for the worse.

A second option is the imposition of full-fledged sanctions on the Maldives. This is a doable option since the country buys almost everything it needs from the Indian mainland. But this will hit the people, and not the government. Indeed, the president is quite capable of turning this to his own advantage by presenting himself as a "victim". Besides, sanctions have had a poor reputation for success anywhere in the world.

Third, there is a possibility of "part sanctions" where India only targets those in power, by preventing their entry into the country, issuing advisories etc. This will include all government visits and could at a pinch, be extended to include businessmen. Money talks, and if its voice is loud enough, could persuade the present government to change its ways.

Fourth, a covert operation to get rid of the present government is an option that has always been part of realpolitik since the time of Kautilya or before. However, intelligence agencies need a clear mandate as to what such an operation is supposed to achieve. For this, a clear assessment needs to be made on one single question, which is, whether President Yameen's baiting of India is spurred by his political situation, or whether he is being egged on by a certain foreign power, who has lately been focussed on expanding its power into the Indian Ocean.

This assessment should lie at the centre of any policy, from intervention to sanctions or any other operation. The fundamental rule of strategy anywhere is to first know your enemy. Without that, you may be in for a nasty surprise.

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Updated Date: Jun 08, 2018 16:47:01 IST

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