Maldives poses formidable challenges for India

(Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Soilh)

In South Asia, democracy wears a tired look generally, and Maldives stands out as exception. After all, the old regime, which was much maligned by Indians, did allow free and fair elections, took their defeat gracefully (although winning over 40% votes) and when the day dawned on November 17, stepped aside for the new leadership to take over.

So, we were bullshitting by demonising former president Abdullah Yameen. Why on earth did we do that? Notably, the new leadership of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has all but expressed gratitude to Delhi for making the transition possible. It seems there are aspects to the transition that are not yet in public domain.

No doubt, this puts heavy burden on Delhi. To borrow the famous words of former US secretary of state Colin Powell, “you break it, you own it.” Delhi has a huge responsibility to see that there is no repetition of the sordid Sri Lankan tale. In 2015, Delhi was triumphalist about the transition in Colombo  but the regime change boomeranged and the debris is all over the place today. This shouldn’t repeat in Male.

Of course, we may think it is much easier to manage a tiny country with a population far less than that of any Indian town or city. But then, we have a way of shooting at our own feet.

Simply put, nothing like the GMR affair (which was the turning point in the souring of relations and the downhill slide) should happen again. Plainly put, Delhi has a moral responsibility to bankroll Maldives’ development without an iota of corporate greed. Small countries like Maldives or Bhutan are very sensitive about foreign exploitation.

Like in Sri Lanka, we may expect the rambunctious ruling coalition in Male to unravel in a near future. That’s when trouble begins. Equally, it remains to be seen whether Male city has enough space for a president and a pretender.

To be sure, Solih will come on his own at some point and Mohamed Nasheed is not used to playing second fiddle. And Nasheed is a maverick and street fighter. One thing Delhi can do is to offer Nasheed a cottage somewhere in Lakshadweep with a comfortable pension so that Solih gets a free hand to run his administration. Solih seems a reasonable, balanced and mature politician.

Again, make no mistake, there was no attempt by China to keep former president Yameen in power. Beijing has simply opened a new page. That was only to be expected because China is in the long game. Beijing will deal with Solih with an open mind. The Xinhua report on Solih’s inauguration duly noted his remark that he intends to strengthen relations with all countries.

It is now standard practice for the Indian security establishment (which runs the neighbourhood policy) to promptly put the blame on China whenever its misadventures collide with reality. But, on the other hand, China’s growing presence in our neighbourhood is also a reality. What complicates matters is that China has a fair idea too of India’s actual potential to compete with it. A recent Chinese commentary on Quad derisively noted,

“India is worse (in comparison with Australia’s dismal record in its neighbourhood of Pacific islands.) As a country well known for low governing efficiency, how can it possibly make the quick and unanimous decision of investing overseas? How long could New Delhi give a green light to such a program – three years or four years? Not to mention India’s poor track record in infrastructure constructions, rarely does an Indian project get finished on time.”

Honestly, it is difficult to take exception to the above assessment. The bottom line is that China believes that it is very much in the Maldivian game. (Read a commentary by Global Times, Maldives will prioritize own interest, not India’s.)

What complicates matters further is that we Indians overlook that the Maldives has taken to globalization in a big way, which was only to be expected in a world-class tourist destination for the international jet set. But there are all sorts of moneybags operating in the Maldives. In the photograph of the inaugural ceremony in Male marking Solih’s swearing-in, it was possible to spot a clutch of Gulf Arab Sheikhs among foreign dignitaries on the VIP row just a couple of seats away from PM Modi.

Suffice to say, India will be competing with green money as much as with China’s BRI investments. And in this cauldron, there is also the secret Anglo-American project to set up bases in Maldives, which can link up with the Diego Garcia. It will be extremely foolish on India’s part to imagine that its security interests and the Anglo-American geopolitical interests in the Maldives coincide.

Delhi needs to be vigilant that the US does not resuscitate its proposal to have an air base in the Maldives. This is where Nasheed comes in. Nasheed’s nexus with London is fairly well known. Britain choreographed Nasheed’s political profile. And it is now payback time.