Opinion

India’s foreign policy mandarins heaved a sigh of relief : Rajeev Sharma

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New Delhi. After reversals in parliamentary elections in neighbouring Nepal and Bhutan (first round), India’s foreign policy mandarins heaved a sigh of relief when Maldives’ September 23 presidential polls results poured in.

The results were stunning and obviously welcome from the Indian viewpoint as pro-China president Yameen Abdul Gayoom suffered a shock defeat and joint opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohammed Solih, leader of the India-friendly Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) which leads the opposition coalition, won by a margin of over 38,000 votes.

Solih’s victory was comprehensive, considering that there were only 2,30,000 valid votes polled in this small archipelago having a population of just 400,000, less than the population of Lutyen’s Delhi on a working day.

However there is a question mark on the situation there. People are asking themselves: Is there Normalcy in the country?

India, which has much at stake but keeps away from interference, is still in no position to celebrate. The reason is simple: yes, democracy won in Maldives but the Indian Ocean archipelago continues to be in a limbo. Here’s why.

  • Abdulla Khalee, lawmaker of the ruling People’s Party of Maldives (PPM), has thrown a cat among pigeons by alleging that the Maldivian opposition colluded with intelligence agency of an unnamed neighbouring country to rig the presidential polls. No prizes for guessing which “neighbouring country” he is referring to as the allusion is clearly about India.

  • On October 3, a specially reconstituted bench of the Maldivian Supreme Court overruled a ruling of the Maldivian Elections Commission announced hours ago whereby the EC had reinstated 12 former ruling party MPs stripped of their seats for crossing the floor and declared that any parliamentary vote with the 12 MPs would be invalid and unconstitutional.

  • This triggers an obvious question: why the Maldivian Supreme Court is being blatantly partisan? The 12 MPs were disqualified in July 2017. The Constitution requires bypolls within 2 months but the Supreme Court has been sitting over the issue for 15 months or a quarter of their tenure, depriving 60,000 constituents of representation in the country’s Parliament.

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The moral of the story is simple. That there are indeed many a slip between the cup and the lip, and the electorally ousted government, which is yet to vacate the seats of power, is conspiring to negate the election results.

That Maldivians should hold their horses before celebrating the results till the process of transfer of power is completed smoothly and peacefully is clear. Till that happens, the election results won’t be worth celebrating. And it should be the same for India and other countries which want a return of normalcy in the island country from aggressive, dictatorial leaders.

President Yameen, who had jailed his opponents and Supreme Court judges who did not agree with him, indeed conceded defeat. But post-result reports are belying his initial statements.

He has aggressively cultivated China, to outdo Maldives traditional friend, because the Indian Government was close to his predecessor, and in any case, supported the rather liberal system of governance there.

Washington, London, Paris – most world capitals have expressed discomfort about Yameen, who is stated to have recived millions of Dollars of bribes from China in return for granting territorial leasing and possible military bases.

However, a bright spot for India is this on-record quote by MDP lawmaker Ibrahim Shareef who remarked thus to this writer: “I don’t apprehend any hiccups in peaceful transition and change of government. This should happen in November.”

In many ways, the Maldivian presidential election has gone much the same way as the last Sri Lankan presidential election in January 2015 when the then president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who too like Maldivian president Yameen was very close to China, lost to underdog Maithripala Sirisena. There is a striking parallel between Rajapaksa and Yameen, both China cronies and both suffered shock defeats at the hands of opposition candidates who were openly anti-China and pro-India.

This conveys the following strategic points:-

  • India continues to be a major friend, and force, in South Asia despite the rapid rise of China.
  • China needs to revise its strategy how to woo India’s neighbours and where to draw a line in forging close ties with these countries and their leaders.
  • Leaders of small nations, whether in South Asia or elsewhere, have to be wary about getting too close to China because if they do that at the expense ofIndia and generate a public impression that they are making their respective nations virtual colonies of China, then it’s their political funeral.

This was the strategic blunder committed by Rajapaksa for which he had to pay a heavy price in January 2015 and repeated by Yameen. Now the wheels have completely turned in Sri Lanka where Rajapaksa has become a strident critic of China and President Sirisena is being seen as being soft towards China. One will have to wait and watch to see whether a similar kind of scenario unravels in Maldives too.
India’s Reaction

India issued a statement congratulating Solih, saying:

“We welcome the successful completion of the third presidential election process in the Maldives which, according to preliminary information, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has won. We heartily congratulate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih on his victory and hope that the Election Commission will officially confirm the result at the earliest…This election marks not only the triumph of democratic forces in the Maldives, but also reflects the firm commitment to the values of democracy and the rule of law.”

India will now hope to put its nightmarish experience with President Yameen behind it and turn a new leaf with the new government of President Solih which takes over only on November 17. India will also hope that Solih’s party Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) wins the parliamentary elections, scheduled in May 2019.

From here on we should hope for better relations between India and Maldives. Incidentally, Maldives is the only near-abroad country which Prime Minister Narendra Modi hasn’t visited. Perhaps he can rectify that and attend Solih’s swearing in ceremony in November.

–The author is a strategic analyst and columnist who tweets @Kishkindha.

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