This is the worst shock for the Indian strategic establishment coming from the least expected quarters: Maldives.
The Maldives Supreme Court has just postponed the presidential run-off, due for this Saturday, 28 September, thus triggering a breach of the constitution as the Supreme Court intervention means that now there will be a gap of more than three weeks between the two rounds in the presidential election in Maldives.
This is a severe diplomatic and strategic setback for India. The development indicates that all is not well for India in the tiny archipelago nation in the Indian Ocean where Pakistan and China are feverishly engaged in a covert game of outsmarting and outplaying India on the Maldivian chess board.
It remains to be seen whether the Indian foreign policy establishment receives a few more jolts from newer quarters in the run up to Manmohan Singh’s meeting with Nawaz Sharif, in New York. But the big picture is decidedly this: India is not able to manage even smaller neighbours like Maldives, therefore, how can it square the circles with regard to neighbours like Pakistan.
The shock and awe with which New Delhi received the news emanating from Male is explained by the reaction of External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid. This is how he commented on the latest Maldives development:
“"We are deeply disappointed and distressed that this should have happened. Our understanding of the democratic system is that even if there are imperfections in the election system, those imperfections need to be addressed in a manner which is not destructive of the very process of elections. It won’t be fair of me to comment on a court judgment, it is an interim judgment. I don’t want to comment on the contents of the judgment but certainly on the implications of the interference with an election. There is a window of time available because they have a November date by which a President has to be installed and I would urge all countries that care for democracy and who have a special cause of Maldives at heart, I would urge them all to use their good offices to ensure that democracy is preserved. If this is being done in the name of democracy, it is unfortunate. I think this is something that undermines democracy. I would certainly hope and expect that better wisdom will prevail in this matter. It is only an interim judgment and I am sure having factored everything in election process will remain uninterrupted and it will proceed to a free and fair 2nd round of election."
The message for the woe-struck UPA government is clear. At a time when the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi is going on the offensive against the UPA government and is increasingly upping his antenna on foreign policy related issues, the Manmohan Singh government is groping for answers for diplomatic failures in countries that figure way down in the Indian diplomatic establishment’s radar screens.
The intervention by the Maldives Supreme Court indicates that some cloak-and-dagger operations are going on in Male to ensure that Mohammed Nasheed , who was ousted 19 months ago in an alleged but never-proven coup, does not become the president again.
Nasheed stood the brightest chance to become the president again as he was way ahead of all his rivals in the first round of voting earlier this month, but fell short of getting more than the 50 per cent votes to avoid a run-off.
India may say that it is not backing any particular candidate in the Maldivian presidential election, but it is obvious that Nasheed is New Delhi’s choice. The latest development is more of an affront for India than it is for Nasheed.
The Indian diplomatic establishment will be right in maintaining that it is not for or against any candidate in the Maldivian presidential election. Nonetheless, it needs to get its act together and act fast before time runs out.
India will first have to find out how the Maldivian Supreme Court’s intervention came about and under whose behest. Simultaneously, India will have to ensure that this verdict is annulled.
All this will have to be done very discreetly. The fact that such a verdict has come about in the first place speaks volumes of the diminishing Indian diplomatic halo in Maldives.
While India cannot be seen casting its lot only with Nasheed, it has to ensure that all presidential candidates, including Nasheed, get a level-playing field. But this does not seem to be happening as invisible powers are at work to clip Nasheed’s wings.
India was rudely awakened from its slumber when Nasheed made an exit 19 months ago. But if Maldives were to go contrary to India’s strategic imperatives and hound out a presidential candidate from the election race, it will be danger signal for India.
After all, India has already given a solemn assurance to all Maldivian stakeholders that it is in favour of a free, fair and transparent presidential election. This assurance is under a serious threat right now.
The intervention by the Maldivian Supreme Court has caused a huge setback to the Indian sweepstakes in Maldives, which if not reversed in double quick time, will signal the beginning of the end of an era of Indian influence in Maldives.
The writer is a FirstPost columnist and a strategic analyst. His Twitter handle is @Kishkindha.
Updated Date: Sep 27, 2013 14:23 PM