India did not ask for it, but the recent crisis in the Maldives has thrown on its lap a rare opportunity to salvage its badly tarnished image as a regional heavyweight. Last year, when Mohamed Nasheed, the country’s elected president, was forced to step down, India promptly made peace with his opponents in the hope of averting political chaos in a strategically important neighbourhood. The move proved to be a grave misjudgment as India was perceived to have abandoned the cause of a democratically elected leader. It also found out soon enough that the regime of President Mohammed Waheed, which it had befriended in a hurry, did not consider itself obliged to safeguard India’s interests. All or none of this may have influenced India’s actions from the time Mr Nasheed walked into the Indian high commission in the Maldives seeking protection. But the deftness with which India has handled the crisis would go a long way in undoing the damage that was done by its ill-considered steps last year. First, it will prove that India has not abandoned the cause of democracy, and second, that it does not lack in diplomatic prowess, a perception that has gained in strength following its weak-kneed policies with regard to some of its more immediate neighbours like Sri Lanka.
The arrangement India has been able to push through in the Maldives has allowed Mr Nasheed to walk free for now. But without sustained diplomatic pressure, from India as well as the international community, he may have spanners thrown in his works in the form of legal hurdles to stop him from participating in the elections in September. The challenge for India is to keep the spotlight on the democratic process in the Maldives, and not on Mr Nasheed. India cannot afford to be identified with the political future of any one Maldivian politician, no matter how benevolent he is towards India’s interests in the Maldives.