India, which has uneasy relations with most of its large neighbours, is now engaged in a diplomatic effort to minimise the fallout of a power struggle in the Maldives, its smallest neighbour, keeping in view the need to resolve it peacefully to ensure stability in South Asia.
The trouble in the Maldives, an island nation with a little over 300,000 people, is the result of contrary pulls by agents of change. Its transition to democracy suffered a setback when Mohammed Nasheed, who was elected President three-and-a-half years ago, handed over power to his Vice-President, Mohammed Waheed Hassan, last week.
A sultanate under British protection in the colonial era, the Maldives became a republic in 1968. In the elections of 2008, Nasheed defeated Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who was President continuously for three decades, heralding an era of multiparty democracy.
Within 24 hours of handing over power to Hassan, Nasheed said he was forced out at gunpoint. His supporters began staging demonstrations demanding his restoration in office.
High-ranking officials from the United States, the United Kingdom and India flew into the Maldivian capital of Male to take stock of the situation and help resolve the conflict peacefully.
International interest in the small nation’s political stability stems from two factors. One is its proximity to the sea lanes which connect Asia and Australia with Africa and Europe and through which a good deal of West Asian oil moves. The other is the growing influence of foreign extremist groups in the Islamic state.
India has an additional cause for worry. Located just 400 kilometres southwest of the Indian mainland, the Maldivian islands form part of a long chain that includes the Indian territory of Lakshadweep.
The extreme vulnerability of the Maldives was demonstrated when a local businessman and smuggler almost seized power in 1988 with the help of mercenaries recruited from among Sri Lanka’s Tamil extremists. The coup bid failed only because India flew in paratroops in response to President Gayoom’s urgent plea.
In the face of the latest coup bid, Nasheed too turned to India for help. However, India ruled out military intervention, and opted for diplomatic action. Nasheed complained later that India had not understood the ground situation in the islands.
While no one in India has questioned the government’s decision not to intervene militarily, some political observers feel the government acted with undue haste in granting recognition to the Hassan regime without waiting for the situation to crystallise. There is also criticism that it failed to anticipate the grave situation developing there.
The Maldives’ conservative Muslim society has been on the path of change since tourism developed following the appearance of an island resort in 1972 and transformed its economy. Today the atolls that constitute the republic are dotted by scores of resorts which attract about 90,000 tourists a year, most of whom arrive by chartered flights from Europe.
Even as tourism gave a fillip to a certain kind of modernisation young men who went abroad to study came back with ideas of reforming Maldivian society to bring it in tune with neoconservative sentiments prevailing elsewhere.
In 2007, a bomb blast rocked Male. Indian and US intelligence agencies linked it to Maldivians educated at a Karachi seminary, whose alumni include Al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Toiba activists.
The neoconservatives saw Nasheed, who was educated in Sri Lanka and the UK, as an obstacle to the realisation of their goal. It was the open association of sections of army and police personnel with them that forced him to quit.
Both Nasheed and Gayoom have unwittingly helped the radical elements at various times to further their political interests.
On coming to power Nasheed wooed them with inducements. Gayoom’s supporters lent support to their agitation against Nasheed. India’s effort to defuse the situation, which is backed by the US and the UK, revolves around Hassan’s offer to establish a government of national unity.
It wants all the major political forces to be represented in the new government. It does not think Nasheed’s suggestion to advance the presidential elections, due next year, is practical.
Considering the deep social and political divisions that have set in, the chances of smooth functioning of an all-party government are slim. In the present situation, elections, too, may not yield a decisive verdict. Obviously there is a long haul ahead for Maldivian democracy. -- Gulf Today, February 13, 2012.