As happens a two or three times a year, I was invited to a state banquet on Thursday. This was being held by President Pranab Mukherjee for his newly elected counterpart from the Maldives, Yaamin Abdul Gayoom.
My sense was that this was a necessary bit of confidence building for the two countries. Gayoom making sure India was the first country he would visit. New Delhi getting a chance to remind him of what India saw as its interests in this scattered archipelago nation, strategically athwart the Indian Ocean.
After all, the Maldivian presidential election was far from controversy free. The incumbent had come to power by a quasi-coup. The election had been repeatedly postponed by a Supreme Court known to be composed of Gayoom loyalists with the purpose of the eventual winner being able to strike a deal with the number three candidate.
All a bit murky, definitely legally questionable, and all very Maldivian given the deep personal divisions that mark the politics of this tiny — population wise — nation. Said one ex-ambassador to Male, “Some 26 families run the whole country.”
I was number 40 in the order of protocol when the assembled guests were lined up in the Ashoke Hall to shake the chief guest’s hand. Gayoom smiled and said, “Happy New Year,” when I murmured welcoming noises.
Mukherjee, during his toast, made the normal nice noises that are made at state banquets. But I noticed that more than a few lines were about Indian Ocean security and included un-banquet like language like “maritime domain awareness” and “naval surveillance.” I conjectured that it was being underlined to Gayoom that the naval understandings India had struck with the Maldives and Sri Lanka in the past were things New Delhi expected policy continuity.
A number of Indian businessmen were seated at the banquet. Anecdotally, I got the sense that especially infrastructure and housing firms tended to cluster in an area ranging from Sri Lanka to Ethiopia and East Africa, a wedge of the Indan Ocean littoral area.
Inevitably, the Andhra infrastructure firm GMR was well represented. Though GMR seems set to exit the Male airport, this will take some untangling. New Delhi has ensured that both sides have taken it to arbitration. But the Maldivian government is caught in a cul de sac.
If it wins the arbitration case, it will need to compensate GMR a whopping sum of money — which the Maldives doesn’t happen to have. The Maldivians claim they can the run the airport. But few believe this. This could mean, the Indian system worries, a third party coming in and possibly loaded with much renminbi.
Rashtrapati Bhavan food is not the greatest, though the Goan fish curry was passable. President Mukherjee is know to roll out an excellent Bengali repast when he travels around the country. However foreign guest seem to get a pan-Indian spread where variety tends to overwhelm the quality. But state banquets aren’t about culinary stuff, they are about pomp, circumstance and a chance to get a bit of capitol gossip.
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