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Delhi dragged into Maldives dilemma

New Delhi, Feb. 13: India’s littlest neighbour is causing it some of the severest bouts of diplomatic migraine.

As the foreign office finessed final preparations to host French President Francois Hollande, who arrives on a two-day visit tomorrow, a fresh crisis in the Maldives dragged South Block into a dilemma it may be loath to grapple with.

Former President Mohammed Nasheed walked into the Indian mission in Male with a team of six MPs this afternoon seeking to meet high commissioner Dnyaneshwar Mulay. Nasheed, dodging arrest and a summons to appear in a Maldivian criminal court on charges of unlawfully detaining a former judge, had clearly arrived without an appointment; Mulay wasn’t there to receive him.

Nasheed said he would wait. A little later, he announced he wasn’t leaving and pleaded for New Delhi’s intervention because he thought his life was in danger.

As Maldivian riot police surrounded the Indian mission — as a protective measure, no more — diplomatic wires jangled between Male and New Delhi. Was Nasheed seeking asylum? Had he run to refuge? More important, had New Delhi decided to grant him either asylum or refuge?

First official word from the foreign office came only after scrambled meetings, including one between national security adviser Shiv Shankar Menon and foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai. It was that he had come to seek “advice and assistance”, a position that was not altered by a statement issued by the ministry of external affairs later in the evening.

New Delhi made to cut through the minutiae of the Maldivian legal process and made an appeal that appeared aimed at insulating Nasheed from arrest and possible banishment from the electoral process.

Citing presidential polls scheduled for September 7, and Nasheed’s declared candidacy, the statement said: “ it is necessary that the presidential nominees of recognised political parties be free to participate in the elections without any hindrance. Prevention of participation by political leaders in the contest would call into question the integrity of the electoral process, thereby perpetuating the current political instability in Maldives.

“This is not in the interest of Maldives or the region. India would call upon the government and all political parties in Maldives to avoid any actions that would vitiate the political atmosphere in the Maldives.”

The statement also expressed concern over the “ongoing political instability in Maldives and called upon the government and all political parties to adhere strictly to democratic principles and the rule of law”.

Clearly, though, this was no hands-off declaration of good neighbourly intent. New Delhi had been pulled in as party to the crisis, however unwillingly, and it was not turning away from a role.

“We are in touch with the relevant Maldivian authorities to resolve the situation,” the statement said.

There’s a serried record of Indian involvement/intervention in the domestic affairs of the Maldives. In 1988, the then Rajiv Gandhi government sent in armed forces to vacate a military coup attempt against the government of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. In 2008, New Delhi applauded the rise of Mohammed Nasheed against decades of Gayoom’s one-party democracy.

Four years later, in February 2012, Nasheed alleged New Delhi had “blessed the coup” that unseated him and put his Vice-President and current incumbent, Mohammed Waheed, in power.

The Waheed dispensation has itself not been free of frictions with New Delhi. A sharp, and bitter, dip in ties was occasioned by the scrapping of the contract to modernise Hulule international airport to the Indian firm GMR a few months ago. Despite Indian protestations, and international arbitration, the Waheed government handed the job to a Malaysian developer.

External affairs ministry officials were not willing to define Nasheed’s position — probably because they wanted it to remain ill-defined — but they admitted they had been landed in a foreign policy impasse by Maldives yet again.

“The fact is that man (Nasheed) is in our high commission and is staying put from the looks of it,” an official said. “The situation is for us to handle because we have been physically dragged into it.”

While they worked the back channels, Indian mandarins also reconciled to the prospect of having to host a “hot-potato” former President as uninvited guest.

Nasheed himself was unequivocal on his adopted status. Around four in the afternoon, the former president and beleaguered leader of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) tweeted from within the high commission: “Mindful of my own security and stability of the Indian Ocean, I have taken refuge in the Indian High Commission in Maldives.”

Nasheed’s wife and some other family members had travelled to Sri Lanka yesterday, where they are reported to have formally requested the Mahinda Rajapaksa government for asylum.

Nasheed’s spokesperson Hamid Abdul Ghafoor was blunt on the purposes of his boss’s bolt into the safety of the Indian mission. “Nasheed’s life is in danger,” he told television channels on a phone line from Male.

“We are clearly seeking India’s intervention in this, we also want to correct the injustice of the coup that ousted him and MDP from power last February. The democratic process is being subverted in Maldives and as a friend and a democracy, India should intervene.”

Masood Imad, the spokesperson for Maldivian president Mohammed Waheed, made light of any threat to democracy in the archipelago-atoll nation and blamed Nasheed for attempting to subvert justice.

“Nasheed has betrayed us, this is a clear breach of trust,” Imad said. “He is answerable to the law and he should present himself before it. We trust India will take the right call on this.”

New Delhi’s statement, virtually demanding that Nasheed be free to contest impending elections, is unlikely to be received in the Maldivian presidency as a “right call”. But that call is probably only one move in many manoeuvres New Delhi will be called upon to make on the tiny, but challenging, Maldivian chessboard.