India, Islands and an Ocean
The Maldivian political crisis is a suitable reminder of how difficult it is to run a sphere of influence. This archipelago nation should be a snap for New Delhi. The Maldivian elite is united on this one point — they may be fighting among themselves but there is little space between them when it comes to India. Its official foreign policy is India First. It’s a small country and incapable of defending itself interest. There are fringe elements of extremism but they are peripheral to the Maldivian mainstream. It is the perfect place for India to test its abilities in social development and nation-guiding.
And it is proving just a bit harder than expected. Evolution is not a beach party.
India has sought to bring stability to the Maldives by introducing democracy and ensuring no one else interferes in its internal affairs. But democracy is more than just about holding elections. It is also about developing norms, like the concept of a loyal opposition or an independent judiciary, which often take many years to develop and find social acceptance.
Hence New Delhi’s gentle interventions over the past few years to get the recently deposed president, Mohammed Nasheed, to try and build a stable parliamentary majority and more recently urge try and form a national unity government and, when that failed, persaude the new regime in Male not to arrest Nasheed.
India doesn’t have too much to worry about when it comes to Chinese or Pakistani influence but it does have some concerns about Islamicist influences gainijg traction when the mainstream polity is at war with itself.
The real stakes in the Maldives for India is showing that it can manage a friendly nation on its periphery when the latter is having problems. And, in a slightly broader context, whether it can manage a strategic policy one of whose elements have come unstuck.
The Maldives is a pillar of India’s oceanic policy. Securing the Indian Ocean requires, among other things, India having a strong say in Male as the maritime territorial claims of the island state covers a huge sprawl of Indian Ocean between Sri Lanka and Madagascar.
Last year, the Maldives had requested that India and Sri Lanka join them in creating a new maritime security structure for the mid-ocean area. As one senior Indian official had noted earlier this year, “We are working on proposals together and hope that our three countries will form the core of what may emerge on maritime security.”
It was also on signing a framework agreememt to allow them to be the latest South Asian country to tie themselves to the Indian economy.
Male in otherwords has been a cakewalk for India to win influence. But it is a test for India to also play therapist, financier. Military guarantor and political mentor to a country vital to its national interests.