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The Narendra Modi government 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. China is reinforcing its military presence near Doklam, belying claims that India 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.
India now finds itself in a strategic tangle with China in the form of a crisis in the Maldives, an archipelago 400 kms away from India. Abdulla Yameen, a pro-China 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 Mohamed Nasheed has asked Delhi to “act soon, and to act firmly.” India 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. China was not a major factor in India's considerations in 1988. Beijing was then hiding its strengths and biding its time but President Xi Jinping now wants China to be at the centre stage in world affairs and to that end has assiduously cultivated Maldives in recent years. Xi Jinping went to Male before he arrived in India 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 Maldives is being sold off to China.”
China will thus want to use the crisis to preserve its gains and test India's resolve in the Indian Ocean. It has plenty incentive to do so. Beijing doesn’t believe the Indian Ocean should be named after India. It disapproves of India-US efforts to balance China and the characterisation of the region as Indo-Pacific by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The current crisis in Maldives 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 Indian Ocean. 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 China 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 India to have its way in Maldives now and open up another battle of attrition elsewhere.
India clearly has few good options on the table. The only hope over the medium term is to work towards making Maldivian opinion favourable towards India. There are, however, complications on that score. India 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 India when trying to shape outcomes in the Maldives. The reason this is so is because Yameen has used religion as an instrument of mobilisation and can easily rally anti-India 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 Maldives is a matter of state competence but cultural factors count too when it comes to assessing loss of influence. BJP's polarising politics in India stand to weaken pro-India voices; how can Nasheed and other opposition figures, for instance, consistently make the case for backing India in the Maldives 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 India 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 Indian Ocean 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 India potentially gives figures like Yameen a stick to beat pro-India politicians with and thereby weaken support for Delhi and steer Maldives closer to China. All this might not happen immediately but that can be the direction of travel for politics in the Maldives – 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 Indian Ocean region. India 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 India better than an illiberal one. It must thus pay attention to the international persona that India 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