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Does BJP's polarising politics weaken India's strategic edge in Maldives?

Maldives crisis not just another fracas between political factions in a tiny nation. The archipelago has become a site where two Asian powers are jostling for strategic advantage

Sushil Aaron 

Illustration by Binay Sinha
Illustration by Binay Sinha

The is currently experiencing a near-perfect storm of domestic and foreign policy setbacks. The ruling BJP has been drubbed in recent parliamentary bypolls in Rajasthan after an underwhelming result in Gujarat elections. The economy continues to struggle with the effects of demonetisation and GST, global fuel prices are high, the stock market is wobbly, the Union budget disappointed even BJP’s supporters and remarks by Modi that making pakodas (fritters) constituted gainful employment for citizens has become a source of mirth and anger. The foreign affairs scene is not comforting either. is reinforcing its military presence near Doklam, belying claims that had “won” the standoff last year, Beijing is negotiating a military base in Afghanistan, and a Chinese company has formally signed the lease for the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka while experts say that Delhi has lost “all its leverage” in Nepal. now finds itself in a strategic tangle with in the form of a crisis in the Maldives, an archipelago 400 kms away from Abdulla Yameen, a pro-president of the Maldives, has imposed emergency, detained Supreme Court justices and defied their order to reinstall opposition MPs and release political prisoners. His opponent in exile, the pro-Indian former President has asked Delhi to “act soon, and to act firmly.” sent paratroopers in 1988 to counter a coup and analysts are currently advising Delhi not to rule out military options. That might not be so easy to venture into. The geopolitical stakes, for one, are very different now. was not a major factor in India's considerations in 1988. Beijing was then hiding its strengths and biding its time but President now wants to be at the centre stage in world affairs and to that end has assiduously cultivated in recent years. went to Male before he arrived in in September 2014. Yameen has obliged by pushing through a free trade agreement in Parliament and inviting Chinese participation in key infrastructure projects. A section of the Maldivian political elite is very invested in ties with Beijing. In the words of Nasheed, “piece by piece, island by island, the is being sold off to will thus want to use the crisis to preserve its gains and test India's resolve in the It has plenty incentive to do so. Beijing doesn’t believe the should be named after It disapproves of India-US efforts to balance and the characterisation of the region as Indo-Pacific by US Secretary of State The current crisis in isn’t just another fracas between political factions in a tiny nation – instead the archipelago has become a site where two Asian powers are jostling for strategic advantage in the The crisis has, after Doklam, turned into another challenge for India's own Monroe Doctrine, which expects other powers not to exercise undue influence in its own backyard. There are reputations at stake; other powers in the region will keenly watch India’s handling of the crisis while goes about its machinations. There are several risk factors that militate against military intervention. First, there is the fate of Indian nationals to consider. China, which has already spoken of respecting Maldives’ sovereignty and the principle of non-interference, may react in unanticipated ways, especially if Yameen or other leaders were to seek its help explicitly. Beijing could allow to have its way in now and open up another battle of attrition elsewhere. clearly has few good options on the table.

The only hope over the medium term is to work towards making Maldivian opinion favourable towards There are, however, complications on that score. has tried to engage Yameen but it clearly prefers Nasheed to the former. And this is where the BJP's anti-Muslim politics can be a liability for when trying to shape outcomes in the The reason this is so is because Yameen has used religion as an instrument of mobilisation and can easily rally anti-sentiment on the basis of BJP's anti-Muslim policies, should Delhi take a sterner approach towards his regime. Critics might contend that India's loss of leverage in the is a matter of state competence but cultural factors count too when it comes to assessing loss of influence. BJP's polarising politics in stand to weaken pro-voices; how can Nasheed and other opposition figures, for instance, consistently make the case for backing in the if the former is known for alienating Muslims? It's not clear how this crisis will affect the fates of Yameen, Nasheed and the rest of the opposition. But it is an opportune moment to reflect on the geopolitical cost of BJP's identity politics. The Modi government has long operated on the view that its majoritarian politics at home have no effect on India’s prospects abroad. Delhi has been lulled into that belief because Western powers and Muslim-majority nations in West Asia and elsewhere no longer criticise its hardline policies in Kashmir, so long as keeps providing market access. Neither BJP's polarising politics nor Delhi's plans to deport Rohingyas have really disturbed diplomatic circles in Delhi. But world politics often throws up unexpected surprises. India's strategic interests in the now depend, in part, on which way the political debate turns in an island nation of half a million people. BJP's approach to Muslims in potentially gives figures like Yameen a stick to beat pro-politicians with and thereby weaken support for Delhi and steer closer to All this might not happen immediately but that can be the direction of travel for politics in the – with or without Yameen and no doubt duly encouraged by Beijing. China's cash may help Beijing win most of the time but the BJP’s domestic agenda is also serving to undermine India's geopolitical prospects. The BJP must get over its illusion that it can entirely wall off foreign policy from domestic politics. It is not a feat that can be pulled off every time and everywhere, least in a diverse, culturally interpenetrated sphere like South Asia and the region. stands to risk its ties with Bangladesh for similar reasons if Sheikh Hasina was to lose power in the future. The Modi government ought to realise that public opinion can shift quickly and that a tolerant, inclusive political culture serves better than an illiberal one. It must thus pay attention to the international persona that is developing on its watch – and recognise that there is really nothing called a cost-free identity politics, even in world affairs.


Sushil Aaron writes on politics and strategic affairs. He tweets @SushilAaron

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.

First Published: Fri, February 09 2018. 09:01 IST
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