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Developments in the Maldives and India’s Options

Ambassador A.K. Banerjee is a former High Commissioner of India in Maldives. He is also a former Deputy Director of Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi.
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  • February 21, 2012

    The sudden resignation of President Nasheed in Maldives on February 7 took many by surprise. The media in India reported it as a coup, a military takeover, the President was forced out, etc. Nasheed's description of the change as a coup gave it a particular flavour. India is allergic to coups in its neighbourhood. It has had to get used to them in Pakistan and is wary of them in Bangladesh. This reflex is rooted in its deep seated commitment to democracy with a supreme civilian authority. Coups also imply surprises and India does not particularly care for them. In the instant case the association of the word coup with Maldives set off a reflex and a chain reaction set in thereafter. India remembered the coup attempted in Maldives in 1988 when it had to rush its forces there to restore the government’s authority. An implied threat to its own security from an unstable situation in Maldives caused the Government to take the line of least resistance i.e., accept the newly sworn in President, Dr. Waheed and assure him support and treat the matter as an internal issue of Maldives, to be sorted out by them. Overall, the message that went out of New Delhi was that while it cannot be unconcerned about happenings in that country, it is prepared to work with whoever is legitimately in power there. However, the issue of legitimacy has now come to the fore and many feel that this needs to be looked at closely. Also, by being the first country to accept the developments there as an internal matter, India set an example for others to follow [witness the US position].

    "Arab Spring" may have started in Tunisia in 2011 but the movement for democratic governance that this implies came to Maldives a good decade and half earlier. In keeping with the gentle nature of the people of these idyllic isles situated in close proximity to India, the movement for democracy finally led to political reforms, formation of political parties with their manifestos and eventually free elections that ushered in the government led by Nasheed. The erstwhile President Gayoom who had been in office for three decades and for whose protection India had rushed its troops and ships in 1988 was voted out of office and went gracefully. Nasheed had been in power for slightly over three years and elections are due next year. [Incidently, the word Maldives is an anglicized rendition of the word "mala dweep", a word of Sanskrit root meaning a garland of islands -- an apt description of the cluster of archipelagos that make up the country.]

    Democracies are however notoriously unstable to begin with and need patience and commitment all round. Maldives is no different and its institutions have not worked properly so far. The President was getting increasingly frustrated and the opposition confronted him at every step. Nasheed, long used to agitating for change and clamouring for power, did not, it seems, grow in office and his style was quite un-presidential. One could say that he was being democratic and had the zeal of a reformer. But holding office and leading street demonstrations require different hats.

    Nasheed and his supporters faced opposition from a rich business class which controlled the mainstay of the Maldivian economy, i.e., the tourism industry. The downturn in the European economies, which sends the bulk of tourists to Maldives, has negatively affected this sector, which, in turn, impacted on the domestic political dynamics.

    In describing his ouster as a coup, perhaps Nasheed wanted to indirectly involve India which he felt he was justified in doing given his attempts to bring the two countries closer, apart from his genuine democratic credentials. Yet at the same time he did not want armed conflict in his country or a civil war like situation. Since his ouster he has been loudly proclaiming his democratic credentials and wants India to hear him. He has repeated that he handed over power under duress and as a democrat he hopes India will see his position and, literally, rescue him. Not only that, he wants to bring forward elections to challenge the opposition and test their legitimacy at the hustings.

    What should India do? Having made the point that Maldives is a major security issue for us and bearing in mind the overall international scenario prevailing now, we should bat for a friend. Knowing how slippery the democratic playfield can be and having a sense of who actually has fouled, as a sort of friendly referee, we should award a free kick to the player who has been knocked down. How can we do that? We should work for a unitary government and persuade all to agree to early elections. But since there are no free lunches, we should recommend that Maldivians agree to long term strengthening of democratic institutions and resolve their differences peacefully; different factions must talk to each other and work towards a modus vivendi. Above all, authorities in Maldives must be encouraged to respect human rights and avoid use of force to deal with political dissent.

    Ambassador A.K. Banerjee is a former High Commissioner of India in Maldives. He is also a former Deputy Director of IDSA, New Delhi.