India's Maldivian Litmus Test

In the context of what’s happening in Greece, Ukraine and Syria, it’s easy to ignore political turmoil in little islands like the Maldives – a country of less than half a million people. But earlier this week, Mohamed Nasheed, a former President and opposition leader of that country, was arrested (and manhandled) on charges of terrorism. Nasheed was removed as President in 2012 by an alleged coup. In the following year, controversial Presidential polls brought Abdulla Yameen to power, relegating Nasheed to the post of an opposition leader.

What makes Nasheed’s arrest all the more controversial is the fact that Yameen is the half-brother of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom – a former President who ruled the Maldives autocratically for 30 long years before being replaced by Nasheed through an election. Some opposition leaders suggest that the arrest was orchestrated by Gayoom in an attempt to destroy Maldives’ political opposition altogether.

All this might not sound like top priority to New Delhi, but India too has been drawn into the unrest. When President Nasheed was overthrown in 2012, his Maldivian Democratic Party had sought intervention from India. New Delhi bid its time, until it was too late. Seeing New Delhi as a potential threat to its power, the new government in Malé turned markedly hostile, canceling a contract with the Indian company GMR for an airport project in the capital city. That, along with other outstanding issues, plagued India’s relationship with the Maldives, both within, and outside the SAARC.

The current political crisis is a litmus test for New Delhi on whether it learnt anything from the earlier face-off. This time too, Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party has called upon New Delhi to intervene in its favor. And much like the last time, Nasheed’s opponents in power have asked it to back off from Malé’s “domestic politics” in the spirit of the Panchsheel. So what should New Delhi do this time round?

To be sure, there is never anything to justify the intervention of a foreign country in the domestic political turmoil of another country. Malé’s internal feuds are its problem, not New Delhi’s. But the impending breakdown and recurring instability of democracy in the Maldives is a cause for concern for New Delhi. This is not least because a democratic government anywhere is automatically drawn towards New Delhi. It is also because Prime Minister Modi’s dream of greater global leadership for India is based on New Delhi’s success as a leader in the peaceful resolution of conflict and turmoil in its neighbourhood.

For New Delhi to emerge as a credible leader in global geopolitics, it needs to leverage its legacy as a free and fair democracy and infuse its foreign policy with these noble values. India’s greatest strength in foreign policy is, indeed, its democracy and values of freedom. In this day and age of political revolutions, people everywhere aspire for more freedom and less dictatorship. And when within the subcontinent, they inevitably look towards New Delhi for help. The Maldivian political opposition wants New Delhi to intervene, not because Nasheed believes New Delhi will be biased in his favor, but because he believes New Delhi will act in the best interests of Maldivian democracy.

Such occasions have also risen previously – in Myanmar, for example, when Aung San Suu Kyi called on India for help, even as New Delhi shook hands with the military junta that tormented her. But New Delhi has shied away from standing up for democracy and political freedom in other countries under the garb of supporting those who are in power. Yet, both in Myanmar and in the Maldives, this policy has failed, with autocratic governments choosing to move away from democratic New Delhi whom they perceived as the biggest threat to their hold on power.

Whether New Delhi decides to take the gamble in Malé this time round remains to be seen. But the price of failure here will be much lesser. The Maldives is not a big economic powerhouse whom India depends on heavily. Rather, it’s the other way around. But the stakes are high, as democracy is under threat. If India can’t stand up for democracy in little Maldives, most people would say that it doesn’t deserve global leadership.

(c) 2015, Swarajya