Recent events in the Maldives are yet another example of how Indian foreign policy has over the years sacrificed its moral standing in the international arena to pursue elusive strategic interests, and now finds itself left with neither.
There was a time when a newly independent India, a third world low-income democracy, could punch above its weight in the international arena.
On Monday, four days after the Supreme Court of the Maldives ordered the release of all political prisoners, South Block watched as the government of Abdulla Yameen announced a state of emergency in the country for 15-days.
Yameen’s government suspended the Supreme Court and sent in security personnel in riot gear and blue fatigues to arrest the chief justice and another top judge. Later, it also arrested former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. He was president from 1978 to 2008, when the Maldives became a multiparty democracy. Gayoom is Yameen’s half-brother.
This isn’t a first for Yameen. Ever since coming to power, his government has eroded civil liberties and has either thrown in prison or forced into exile, all political rivals.
Mohamed Nasheed, who had become president in the first multiparty elections in 2008 by defeating Gayoom, denounced the emergency decree. Nasheed currently lives in exile. He was one of the opposition politicians that the Supreme Court had ordered to be freed. Currently, Gayoom and Nasheed are part of an opposition alliance.
Nasheed, who currently lives in Colombo, urged India to “act swiftly” to help resolve the crisis. It is unlikely that Nasheed, after his recent experiences with South Block, was hoping for a repeat of 'Operation Cactus', but has tried nevertheless.
On November 3, 1988, India had launched ‘Operation Cactus’ to successfully foil a coup by mercenaries to restore the government of the then president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. The US, erstwhile Soviet Russia, Great Britain and several other countries had applauded India, particularly for its "swift" response.
But much has changed in the manner India has run its foreign policy in the last two decades by increasingly looking at international issues through a pragmatic geo-strategic prism of increasing trade, investments and security cooperation.
India has significant security and economic interests in the Maldives. It has, however, gradually ceded its moral authority in recent years, Nasheed’s entreaties asking it to take a tougher position on Yameen's crackdown on civil liberties, in favour of securing its interests consistent with its pursuit of a more 'pragmatic' foreign policy, even as Yameen has found increasing support from China.
In the aftermath of the arrests in the Maldivian capital of Male on Monday, New Delhi issued a travel advisory asking its nationals to not travel to the Maldives. It also asked Indian expatriates living in the Maldives to exercise caution and stay away from public gatherings. On February 2 after the Supreme Court order, New Delhi had asked Yameen’s government respect and abide by the apex court’s order. South Block had also said India was closely monitoring the situation, and hoped that law and order will be maintained.
The Maldives is an archipelago of more than 1,190 islands in the Indian Ocean with a population of a little over 400,000. Only half of these are inhabited, while others are used as resorts with tourism being the country’s biggest foreign exchange earner.
India’s future course of action would need to factor in the presence of 25,000 Indian nations living in the Maldives, along with 108 Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs). Indian tourists accounted for a meagre 6 per cent of all tourists visiting the Maldives in 2017, and Chinese tourists 22 per cent. Nearly half of all tourists to the Maldives are from Europe.
Not just India, but China and some of the European countries have also issued travel advisories, which would impact the Maldivian economy.
India and the Maldives also have a trade agreement, signed in 1981, which mandates upon India to export essential commodities to the Maldives. India-Maldives trade now stands at Rs 7 billion.
Most of the essential commodities and poultry, both for the Maldivian population and used in the resorts, are exported to the archipelago from India and Sri Lanka. Hundreds of Maldivians visit India for studies and medical treatment.
The Taj Group runs two resorts in the Maldives – Tax Exotica Resort & Spa and Vivanta Coral Reef Resort. Several other leading companies, like Tata Housing, also have a presence in the Maldives.
As for the political context, Nasheed was sentenced to 13-years in jail on terror charges in March 2015. After international pressure, he was granted asylum in the UK. Nasheed lost narrowly to Yameen in 2013. Elections are scheduled for this year, and Yameen has lost popular support that would make his re-election bid difficult.
In the last two decades, India's economic and strategic interests have increasingly led to it sacrificing some of its principled positions. India, in the decades after independence, had resisted becoming a camp follower of any of the two big powers. It had taken the lead in supporting the cause of self-rule in the still colonized Africa, stood rock solid against the apartheid regime in South Africa and was uncompromising in its solidarity to the Palestinian cause.
In its immediate neighbourhood, India supported the cause of democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar. The 'Operation Cactus' was another example of New Delhi possessing the moral courage to act quickly to save the Maldives from a coup. But Myanmar has moved closer to China, while Suu Kyi has not forgiven India for supping with the military junta from 2001 onwards and jettisoning its support for her cause. Similarly, Nasheed has faulted New Delhi for failing to live up to its commitment to democracy in and around India.
Strategic expert Brahma Chellaney tweeted: "Had India intervened in 2012 when President Nasheed called Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and pleaded for help against the pro-Islamist forces besieging his office, China today wouldn't be using the Maldives to open an oceanic front against India. Count this as a strategic folly."
Unfortunately, much has changed in the Maldives since Nasheed was ousted. Yameen's government has leased several of the islands to China.