New Delhi, Oct. 3: An Indian envoy summoned in protest, buffeted by public reprimands and thinly veiled warnings — this isn’t Islamabad posturing against New Delhi. This is the tiny island nation of the Maldives telling India to mind its business.
India is locked in a diplomatic stand-off with the Maldives after a series of what officials here described to The Telegraph as “provocative” acts reminiscent of their spat in 2012 when Male terminated infrastructure giant GMR’s 25-year contract to operate its airport.
The tension follows pressure from India to resolve a political stalemate on the island after its Supreme Court ordered the indefinite postponement of national elections that New Delhi sees as critical for the Maldives’ strategic stability.
“The response we’ve received from Male suggests a deliberate attempt to provoke us,” a senior diplomat here said. “Things could get a lot worse before they get any better.”
The 2012 spat with the Maldives, India’s smallest neighbour which had never before publicly opposed it, was one of the biggest foreign policy embarrassments Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government has had to face in its 10 years in office. India is desperate to avoid a repeat but officials here concede that the tension is spiralling and a resolution is not in sight.
Former Maldives President Mohammed Nasheed, best known globally for an underwater cabinet meeting he held in 2009 to highlight the threat of climate change, earned 45 per cent of the votes in the September 7 presidential elections, the highest among the four candidates.
The Maldives Constitution needs the winner to garner a majority of the votes, and the hung election necessitated a run-off that the nation’s Election Commission had scheduled for September 28.
But on September 23, the island nation’s Supreme Court put the run-off on hold indefinitely, after Nasheed’s closest challenger in the first round, Abdulla Yameen — the brother of long-time dictator Maumoon Gayyoom — alleged polling irregularities.
“This development has resulted in uncertainty concerning the second round, which may have an impact on peace, stability and security in the country (the Maldives),” India’s foreign ministry spokesperson and joint secretary Syed Akbaruddin said on September 24, a day after the judgment by the Maldives apex court.
But the Supreme Court judgment also had an almost immediate impact on ties between the Maldives and India. India started discussions with the UN, European Union, Commonwealth and key nations with stakes in the Maldives to pressure Male to return to democratic elections and to accept the poll verdict.
Foreign minister Salman Khurshid spoke to counterparts in New York on the margins of the UN General Assembly last weekend, seeking international consensus against any attempt by Mohammed Waheed — the current President — and others disappointed by the first round of polls to delay the second round.
On September 25, a day after Akbaruddin’s statement, Waheed hit out at India, asking “foreign governments, the United Nations and the Commonwealth to show responsibility and to refrain from issuing statements commenting on, and speculating about, the ongoing court case”.
Two days later, the Maldives foreign office summoned Indian ambassador Rajeev Shahare to register its protest after the envoy met the island nation’s top election official. The tensions continue to mount.
Nasheed and many others in mainstream Maldivian politics have demanded greater international intervention.
Over the weekend, former Maldives foreign minister Ahmed Shaheed, who is now the UN’s special envoy for talks with Iran, specifically asked India to intervene militarily to restore democracy in the island nation.
Enraged, Waheed on October 2 reiterated his defiance of calls from India and the international community to push for a quick resolution to the island’s political crisis, warning that the Maldives was prepared for any intervention.
“I strongly condemn calls for foreign military interventions in the Maldives and to interfere in domestic affairs of the country,” he said in an address to his nation.
“We are not intimidated by such calls. We are prepared to save the country from such foreign parties that may attempt to interfere in the powers of the state.”
Waheed’s latest statement reflects the irony inbuilt into the current diplomatic crisis between India and the Maldives. India has once earlier intervened militarily in the Maldives — but at the request of Gayoom’s government in 1988, when armed foreign militants linked to the separatist Tamil movement in Sri Lanka tried to overthrow the regime in Male.
But the current crisis hasn’t caught India off guard completely.
Afraid of precisely the kind of political chaos triggered by Yameen’s appeal to the Supreme Court, India sent top diplomats to meet and discuss the September polls with all four presidential candidates for months before the elections. Nasheed, Waheed and Gayoom have all visited India over the past year.
In meetings with Indian officials, all the four candidates committed to accepting the results of the elections and to ensuring a smooth transfer of power to strengthen Maldives’ fledgling democracy — the first multi-party elections were held in 2008, and were won by Nasheed.
“We told them, that is all we want,” a senior official said. “For India, a power vacuum or a political crisis in the Maldives is the worst possible scenario because it creates space for other vested interests to intervene.”
China, which has increased its ties with the Maldives — it set up an embassy in Male under Nasheed, whom India had considered a friend — is of the “interests” New Delhi is concerned about. Islamic groups capturing power in Male also worries India.
Gayoom’s move to go back on his commitment to India, and Waheed’s aggressive posturing after the elections, have left New Delhi struggling for a resolution and revived memories of last year’s crisis.
Bangalore-based GMR had won the global contract to build and manage the Male international airport for 25 years under Nasheed’s government. But Waheed, who came to power after Nasheed quit alleging a coup by the security forces, scrapped GMR’s contract. The infrastructure firm is currently suing the Maldives for $1.4 billion as compensation.
Even at that time, though, Waheed’s words were more measured than they have been over the past week, officials said.
“We’re used to the kind of behaviour we’re seeing from Waheed coming from Islamabad, not from Male,” a diplomat who has served in India’s Male mission said, referring to India’s perpetually tense relations with Pakistan. “It shows how far we’ve come in our relations since 1988.”