India-Maldives relations under Gayoom’s leadership
Though the newly elected President Abdulla Yameen Gayoom has assured Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of giving priority to relations with India, especially because of geographical proximity as suggested by the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his congratulatory note, there are fears that Maldives will return to hardline Islam- both in political and social domain.
This might not allow the recovery of lost ground in India-Maldives relations which deteriorated after the coup in February 2012 when the then President Muhammad Nasheed was dethroned. If the hardliner elements prevail in the next administration of Yameen, who has won elections on the Islam plank, smooth progress in relations would be difficult as the fundamentalist elements will be cajoled by the anti- India forces guided by the Pakistani intelligence agencies.
For India’s neighbors it is very easy to manipulate relations with India playing China card and undoubtedly Maldivian leaders have also learnt this art. China was the second country after India which has been allowed to open its embassy in Male. The Maldivian Presidents are often hosted by the top leaders of China.
China certainly has entered as a big elephant in the room and it will be difficult to ward off the Chinese influence in Male without a friendly regime in Male. India has welcomed the new government of Maldives with President Abdullah Gayoom at the helm, who has won the elections with the support of conservative Adhaalath Party (AP).
Yameen, who had declared that he will defend Islam in Maldives, swept to unexpected victory with a narrow margin in the run off third round of elections. It has now become very apparent that President Muhammad Waheed who lost the Presidential elections in the first round itself had made it a point to prevent the return of his bête noire Muhammad Nasheed.
Muhammad Nasheed was the front contender in the Presidential elections who obtained over 45 percent votes in the previous two rounds of elections. However since he had to win more than 50 percent of the votes, he failed to get back to the Presidential palace and other political forces ganged up against him to push Abdulla Yameen Gayoom’s victory. Yameen who is the half brother of the three decades ruler of Maldives Mamoon Abdul Gayoom was seen as the candidate of Gayoom.
It was Indian Air Force which saved the M A Gayoom from a coup attempt in 1988 by launching Operation Cactus and the government survived till next three decades. But the Gayoom government gradually turned autocratic and since India was advising him to introduce democratic polity in the country, Gayoom also started looking towards China.
It is India’s dilemma whether to advocate democracy in India’s neighborhood at the cost of bilateral relations or simply continue to support autocratic governments for its strategic benefits. However it has been seen as a failure of Indian diplomacy which could not play its card well and keep in check the anti India forces after Waheed became the President.
Though India has welcomed the election results saying that India wants political stability in the country which will allow smooth progress in relations, the diplomatic observers are wary of the real intent of the new President. Even if he wishes to develop very cordial relations with India his allies will perhaps not allow him to do so. Though, after assuming the charge, the first foreign dignitary he met was the Indian ambassador Rajeev Sahare in Male and wrote a very warm letter to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, diplomatic observers wonder if he will be allowed a free hand in dealing with India.
Yameen told Manmohan Singh, “Maldives and India enjoy historic ties for close friendship and cooperation. As you pointed out, our geographic proximity is the foundation upon which successive governments of our two countries have long strived to boost relations. Furthermore, our shared values and similar vision of enhanced regional cooperation and the diverse Indo-Maldives people-to-people contact offer additional avenues for future cooperation”.
This letter no doubt has given hope to the Indian government and follow up steps are being planned to revive the warmth in relations that existed during President Nasheed’s tenure.
The Ministry of External Affairs has to play its card very cleverly to keep the new government in good humor and at the same time keep in check the anti Indian elements in Maldivian political class.
The strategic significance of Maldives emerges from the fact that Maldives is situated only 300 kms away from the Kerala coast, which is a major trade route in the Arabian Sea and any outside presence in the Maldivian waters would pose a challenge to India’s national and maritime interests.
The strategic location of Maldives in the Arabian Sea has also attracted the attention of big powers like USA, whose top diplomats have been shuttling through Male and Washington to prevent Maldives going into the hands of the rival forces.
Observers of Maldivian politics believe that Pakistan is running a secret operation in the country by encouraging the fundamentalist elements to whom the Chinese would be more than willing to hand over a blank cheque book.
The Sino-Pak joint collaboration is very much in operation, which is evident from the words and actions of the erstwhile Maldivian government functionaries. Though traditionally India had been extending all sorts of economic and security assistance to the Maldivian security forces against sea pirates and poachers and on India’s assistance Maldives has today become a major tourist hotspot of the world, but the competitive cheque book diplomacy accompanied by divisive democratic politics has perhaps led to the sidelining of India.
After the election results were announced a senior official of the Maldivian Democratic Party commented, “Our main worry is that the new government will only worsen the problems we are facing with increasing Islamic radicalism.” In October the National Bureau of Classification in Maldives took the unprecedented step of banning the song God Allah aur Bhagwan from the film Krish 3, dubbing it as anti Islamic. Maldives has a large Bollywood fan base but the government dared to take this step. The Maldivian women are also now being asked to wear head scarf though it has not been officially enforced.
It has also been reported that the fundamentalist forces had tried to destroy a bronze Ashoka pillar, which has been installed by Indian government in Addu Atoll after the ouster of President Nasheed. In fact the leader of the Islamic foundation of Maldives Ibrahim Fauzee is heading a religious conservative group who is an ex- Guantanamo Bay prisoner. He was nabbed from a Al Qaeda hideout in Karachi in May 2002.
Though the election of Yameen has ended around 20 months of political uncertainty and the new President, the 54 year old economist, has promised to make Maldives the safest and most developed nation in the region and he will maintain good neighborly relations with the countries in the region, the diplomatic observers are of the view that his moves will be determined by the forces who have helped him win the Presidential elections.