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‘Survival’ strategy of a lameduck
President Politics of deal scrap

New Delhi, Nov. 28: The “shifting sands” of politics in the Maldives, which yesterday cancelled an agreement with Indian infrastructure firm GMR to develop an airport in capital Male, have left New Delhi flummoxed.

Sources said the Maldivian cabinet’s decision should be seen in the light of a no-confidence motion President Mohamed Waheed’s government is to face in the People’s Majlis, the Maldivian parliament, early next month.

Terminating the $500-million (Rs 2,750 crore) contract, to have been executed by a consortium of GMR and the Malaysian MAHB, has become for Waheed a matter of survival.

The Adhaalath Party, an important coalition partner, had on November 15 given Waheed a week to “reclaim” the airport from GMR saying the issue was one of “sovereignty and independence”.

Waheed, at best a lameduck President with little support of his own in the Majlis, has seized the opportunity to muster support from the radical Islamist Adhaalath and nationalist parties like the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party and the Jumhoree Party.

Waheed became the President after Mohamed Nasheed quit office in February. Nasheed, a moderate also described as the Obama of the East, had faced months of protests from the hardliner Islamist parties and later complained that his Vice-President Waheed had conspired with the military and former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom to oust him in a coup.

Nasheed also alleged that Indian high commissioner D.N. Mulay kept New Delhi in the dark about the conspiracy.

India was swift to recognise Waheed’s government, saying the transfer of power was constitutional and its support was aimed at ensuring peace. Waheed had, in turn, promised Indian leaders and senior officials that Indian investments would be “safe”.

But their assessment of Waheed, the first Maldivian to earn a PhD from Stanford, as a more “reasonable” man than the “maverick” Nasheed has now come to haunt India’s external affairs ministry.

South Block is now having to deal with a President who is taking support of parties like the Adhaalath, which advocates that women cannot run for presidency, wants the island’s resorts shut down and a strict dress code even for tourists. The Maldives, whose population is predominantly Sunni Muslim, earns most of its revenue from tourism.

Sources said Waheed, who had promised to be a caretaker President until the presidential elections in end-2013, was now getting ambitious.

“The reasons to scrap the GMR contract are mired in Maldivian domestic politics. Waheed needs to broaden his support base to survive the no-confidence motion and is using this as a pretext to reach out to radical Islamist and nationalist parties in the Majlis,” said the source.

Such is the change since February that Nasheed has now publicly come out in support of the Indian high commissioner while the Waheed government’s spokesperson has accused GMR of having “bribed” Mulay. New Delhi has been left surprised.

“It is the shifting sands of the Maldivian politics,” said a source.

Nasheed has also called the cancellation of the GMR deal “irresponsible”.

But the catch for Waheed is that Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, whose party has the most numbers in the Majlis and is part of the coalition and whose daughter Dunya is the junior foreign minister, is also in touch with the Indian envoy and backs the GMR contract.

South Block is therefore waiting patiently for the events to unfold before it takes any retaliatory action on the Waheed government’s “illegal” action to scrap the deal.

Yesterday, South Block had said in a strong statement the Indian government was “prepared to take all necessary measures to ensure the safety and security of its interests….”

Waheed remained unfazed, saying his government remained “confident” bilateral ties would not be hit. “In the meantime two other contracts with Indian companies are being taken forward…” he said.