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BAD JUDGMENT

- The US is waiting for India to mess things up with the Maldives

Salman Khurshid has discovered within a month in his new job that some things have not changed in India’s external affairs in nearly twenty years. When P.V. Narasimha Rao promoted Khurshid within a few days of the latter’s 40th birthday in 1993 from deputy minister for commerce to minister of state for external affairs, one of his first tasks was to read out the Riot Act to the Maldives. Last month, he found himself engaged in the same brief almost two decades after his first such encounter.

Rao’s government was tipped off then that the Maldivians were secretly cosying up to Pakistan. India’s neighbourhood was already unfriendly: not far from the Maldives, the wily Ranasinghe Premadasa, who ruled Colombo, was deeply distrustful of India so soon after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, and, to both India’s east and west, the demolition of the Babri Masjid a few months earlier had made the environment tense and unpredictable.

The president of the Maldives for three decades, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, had cultivated the reputation that he was a friend of India, but he was steadily allowing an undercurrent of Islamization to take root in his island nation of atolls with money from Arab Gulf states flowing in for building mosques vastly out of proportion with his country’s small population and for other religious activities.

India summoned Gayoom’s foreign minister, Fathulla Jameel, to New Delhi where he was handed over to Khurshid one evening. Jameel was then Asia’s longest serving foreign minister (he stayed in that office eventually for 27 years), and South Block knew he could read the writing on a South Asian wall. Getting India’s junior foreign minister to speak to him was itself a message to the Maldives when protocol required Khurshid’s boss, Dinesh Singh, the external affairs minister to engage his counterpart from Male.

The entire operation was somewhat cloak and dagger. There was no public announcement of Jameel’s arrival and his visit was handled in South Block largely by its Pakistan division and not the one handling the Maldives. The young Khurshid acquitted himself well and Male did not cross the proverbial lakshman rekha with Islamabad as subsequent events testified.

But unlike two decades ago, there is no certainty that India can now force the Maldives to fall in line on the latest irritant in their bilateral relations over the problem of the Male airport contract. No amount of spin can save India’s face if that happens and New Delhi loses Male forever because of bad judgement in South Block on the current stand-off.

For one thing, the Rao government’s unpublicized, but clinically targeted, confrontation with Male was over an issue of national interest and security. India’s latest fight with the Maldives is over a deal with a private contractor, however much New Delhi might whitewash it as a matter of supreme national concern. In fact, the grapevine in New Delhi and Thiruvananthapuram is full of innuendoes that Arvind Kejriwal has enough material on the ‘East-India-Company-type approach’ by some Indian businesses in the Maldives that will produce another of his bombshells, even if it may occur only closer to the next Lok Sabha elections for maximum effect.

In any case, having sullied its hands in the till on a succession of corruption-tainted corporate deals in recent years, the United Progressive Alliance government has no credibility left when it speaks for Indian businesses abroad. In part, that explains the attitude in Male to New Delhi’s demands on behalf of the GMR Group, whose airport contract has been cancelled. But there is also a larger dimension to the episode that points to a colossal foreign policy failure within the UPA government that is largely self- inflicted. It is a drift, which, if unchecked — and it may already be too late — can have ramifications that South Block cannot afford either in the country’s neighbourhood or on any larger geographic scale.

In recent times, there has been a steady stream of instances when the ministry of external affairs forgot a golden rule in diplomacy that reaction to any development overseas has to be measured, proportionate and calculated to produce the maximum impact.

Earlier this year, the ministry had egg on its face when it disproportionately became engaged in a Calcutta couple’s child custody dispute in Norway that turned out to be a case of marital discord combined with health problems of one of the parents. It is no one’s suggestion that such consular issues should be neglected. But, for the minister for external affairs of a country that aspires to be a global power to personally get involved in such matters instead of leaving them to his joint secretary dealing with the country concerned or to the chief passport officer is to waste New Delhi’s considerable diplomatic capital abroad.

The worst case of this kind was perhaps in April this year when the United States of America’s deputy chief of mission in New Delhi was summoned to South Block over a mere 75-minute delay in clearing the actor, Shah Rukh Khan, at White Plains airport in New York. The summons was preceded by the unedifying spectacle of a procession of members of the UPA’s council of ministers going on record protesting against what is a normal delay that millions of Indian citizens like Khan regularly face at airports the world over in the course of their travels.

A plethora of such examples of diplomatic excess pale into insignificance before the bad judgment that South Block is now displaying on the airport row with the Maldives. The defence minister A.K. Antony is a man who does not speak out of turn before TV cameras and, instead, does what he has to do in private. So, it is not yet clear to those outside the government if Antony has brought to the attention of the prime minister and his cabinet colleagues the risks involved in an undesirable government intervention in a private business dispute with Male at this stage, and the stakes in such ill-advised action for India’s defence and national security.

Those in New Delhi who are threatening to cut off aid to the Maldives — a pittance of $25 million — could not be unaware that Antony made a highly sensitive visit to the Maldives in August 2009. Typical of the defence minister’s style, the visit was low profile, but the composition of his team was a dead giveaway. India’s defence minister would not spend as many as three full working days in a tiny country like the Maldives, that too accompanied, among others, by his defence secretary, the director-general of the coast guard, at least one vice admiral and the deputy chief of naval staff unless there is very important business to be transacted with his hosts.

With that visit put together by the ministry of defence, the navy had begun a strategic initiative to establish a bridgehead in the once-critical World War II royal air force base of Gan, which the British vacated and handed over to the Maldives in 1976. In addition to a presence in Gan, Antony and his team unveiled, during that visit, the road-map for an Indian naval and air force presence permanently in Male and in the Maldivian atoll of Haa Dhalu. This has been one of the navy’s biggest initiatives since it began a rapid expansion a few years ago.

Those in the UPA government who are demanding punishment of a sovereign state for cancelling an airport contract are ignoring the reality that today the Maldives is being wooed by big powers because of its strategic location. It is a failure of recent Indian diplomacy that the Maldivians are now willing to be wooed. That would have been unthinkable in the years of Indira Gandhi, her son Rajiv or their successor, Rao.

The man of the moment in Male is the US assistant secretary of state for South Asia, Robert Blake, who knows the atolls well from the time he lived in Colombo as the American ambassador. Blake is now waiting for India to mess up its relations with the Maldives and walk away with Gan, giving the Pentagon its biggest gift in the region since Diego Garcia military base in 1971.