New Delhi, Feb. 9: India is at sea with its policy on the Maldives and is in grave danger of ceding strategic space in the Indian Ocean that is astride its sealanes.
In New Delhi today, the government was wondering what call to take on directing its policy without appearing to be interventionist.
Developments in the Maldives suggested New Delhi may have been hasty in announcing its unqualified support to the new Maldivian President Mohamed Waheed.
On Tuesday, after President Nasheed quit office, government sources in New Delhi had expressed confidence that the transfer of power in the Indian Ocean archipelago was peaceful and under the ambit of the Maldivian Constitution.
On Wednesday, as Nasheed alleged he was ousted at gunpoint, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sent a letter to his successor expressing India’s unqualified support to his government. The Prime Minister iterated that support to Waheed later in the day when the latter called him but hoped that his government would honour the Maldivian Constitution.
“I will still give them the benefit of the doubt. It is an evolving situation. Our PM was correct in stressing to President Waheed that he should honour his country’s Constitution,” said former diplomat G. Parthasarathy.
The play of events in the Maldives now is vastly different from the 1988 attempted takeover by alleged mercenaries that prompted India to launch “Operation Cactus”, flying its soldiers to Male and saving then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who now led the Opposition against President Nasheed.
New Delhi, however, has activated a defence crisis management group under the Integrated Defence Staff. Vice-Admiral Shekhar Sinha is the chief of Integrated Defence Staff to the chairman, chiefs of staff committee, and he heads the tri-service command. The vice-chiefs of the armed forces, the director of naval operations, assistant chief of air staff (operations) and the Director General of Military Intelligence are understood to be in the committee.
Since Mohamed Nasheed was deposed – he calls it a coup at gunpoint – as the President of the archipelago on Tuesday and Mohamed Waheed Hasan Manik took over at the helm, New Delhi was under the impression that it had facilitated a transition in a situation that was about to snowball.
But 72 hours later, with Nasheed claiming that he was likely to be arrested and incarcerated after a warrant ordered by an allegedly biased judge, South Block was at pains to re-craft its Maldives policy. Nasheed’s wife and daughter have found refuge in Sri Lanka.
In the interim, Nasheed’s supporters have hit the streets and torched at least one police station in Addu, where the Indian Navy has maintained maritime surveillance aircraft. Envoys from the UK, the European Union and the US are heading to Male.
“Nasheed’s resignation was itself an indication that things were going out of control. But what can we (India) do? We cannot micro-manage a country,” says Anand Kumar, associate fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis. Kumar was in the Maldives six months ago and had interviewed its national security adviser and defence and foreign ministers.
Despite the turbulence in the Maldives growing since December, India’s foreign office had chosen to take a hands-off policy. Till 2011, four countries had full-time missions in Male – India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Last year, China also opened an embassy.
Parthasarathy said it was worrisome that Waheed has accommodated people in his cabinet who have Islamist ideologies. Waheed’s home minister Ahmed Jamil Ahmed and another minister who is a former cop both belong to Islamist parties.
“There is a sign here that Islamists are being accommodated in the government despite them having lost in the elections. I see Gayoom’s hand and encouragement in this,” said Parthasarathy.
Retired diplomats said the situation was still evolving and they hoped South Block has a plan B ready. But sources within the government raised questions about the Indian high commission’s role.
“The high commissioner should have given a better assessment of the situation. It would seem the officials there do not have their feet on the ground,” said a source, surprised that New Delhi could not anticipate Nasheed’s protests.
Another retired diplomat questioned India’s current high commissioner’s ability to take political decisions. “We could have waited and watched instead of issuing statements in support. No major country has come out in Waheed’s support. Where was the hurry? I hope we are not playing favourites here,” said the retired diplomat.
He said New Delhi should have taken a leaf out of what Washington has done. US assistant secretary Robert Blake, who was on a scheduled visit to Bangladesh, will make a stopover in Male. “We also should have sent a senior diplomat to study the situation,” said the retired diplomat.
Sources said Waheed could not be the solution to what is a fight between Gayoom and Nasheed. They said Waheed could only be an interim solution. “We need to tell Waheed that he should follow democratic norms, not go about arresting Nasheed’s supporters just because they are protesting,” said a source.
Waheed was Nasheed’s running mate in the 2008 presidential elections but his party has little presence in the Majlis, the Maldivian parliament. “He can at best be an interim arrangement,” said a source.
Parthasarathy said military intervention was not an option. He was in the Prime Minister’s Office when India had intervened to quell a coup in 1988. “This situation is different as it is an internal political upheaval unlike 1988. But before we sent in our forces, we had consulted with both Washington and Moscow. The decision wasn’t taken in isolation,” said he, but cautioning that Indian forces in the Maldives will be bad news for India as fundamentalists will exploit the nationalist sentiment.
But Indian influence in the Maldives and access to its leadership across parties was perceived to be deep. The newly appointed chief of the military, Brigadier-General Priyam Mohamed, for example, finished a course at the National Defence College in New Delhi and returned home only in December.
Kumar says that he has come across reports that Nasheed wanted Indian military intervention to save his presidency. “But that is not our business. In no time, we will be branded ‘big brother’ and radicals will use it as an issue to incite passions,” Kumar said.