Keep All Options On The Table

The constitutional and political crisis in small but strategically vital island country of Maldives has exacerbated in the last few days.

The crisis reached a flashpoint after the country’s Supreme Court ordered an immediate release of political prisoners and activists held in prison on President Yameen’s orders. Defying the court’s directive, President Yameen on Sunday asked the Supreme Court to review and reverse its decision on the ground of “national security”. Seeing the Supreme Court hold onto its position, President Yameen on Monday evening proclaimed a state of “Emergency” in the country for 15 days. India, being a regional power in South Asia, is therefore under pressure as the top leadership in the country is in a flux over whether (if yes, then in what manner or to what degree) or not to intervene ? This article attempts to explain what are the options available before India.

Ripe moment for Intervention ?

India is the largest and the most powerful country in South Asia and has historically followed a policy of strategic intervention in its neighbourhood. While, at times, it has intervened aggressively (even militarily) as was the case in 1971 India-Pak war which led to the creation of Bangladesh, and in late 1980s when it decided to put boots on ground in Sri Lanka, on most occasions it has refrained from taking an aggressive stance. One common element in India’s foreign policy since the late 1980s has been that it has followed a policy of not putting its troops on the ground. This is also the reason why despite many experts arguing for India’s physical presence in Afghanistan, it has refrained from sending soldiers to the war-torn country. This has mainly been on account of the disastrous experience of militarily intervention in Sri Lanka where the Indian Peace-Keeping forces suffered massive reverses. Therefore, India has more or less followed a policy of either taking political sides, favoring those politicians who have propagated a friendly stance towards India or have remained passive. Throughout 1990s and 2000s this policy worked well for India as on most occasions it was able to placate its smaller neighbours who feared a “big brother attitude” from India but also understood that given the geographic factors and their economic interdependence on India, they cannot remain insulated from or antagonistic to India. India for a long period did not face competition or real challenge in what it considers its own backyard. But, with the end of the era of “peaceful rise” of China, from 2010 onwards China has emerged as critical player in the region. It has followed a policy of encircling India in the latter’s neighbourhood. Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, it has been following a very aggressive policy in South Asia. It has used both policies of arm-twisting and economic incentives to win friends in south asia. From Bangladesh to Sri Lanka, and Nepal to Maldives, it has largely been successful in “replacing” India. The smaller nations have also tactically manoeuvred Chinese support to irk India. They have used “Chinese-card” to bargain a better deal with India. Maldives recently signing an FTA with China is a classic example.

Way ahead

Given the strategic calculations and the power-play that is underway in the Indo-Pacific region, which is getting manifested most intensely in the Indian Ocean, the political crisis in Maldives may be an opportune moment for India to assert its claim of dominance and pre-eminence in the region. It is also important here to note that the entire international community including the UN, is in favor of democratic reforms in Maldives. The whole international community has urged Maldivian President to obey the SC’s order. India, therefore must keep all cards open on the table. It needs to adopt a pro-active approach in foreign policy by at least becoming a mediator between the opposite factions. This way it can take up a moral high ground and also ensure that it’s own interest is taken care of. Even if it opts for coercive diplomacy and if necessary military option, it is likely that the western powers especially the US will be on India’s side. South Asia is not a natural neighborhood of China, and its aggressive stance in the South China sea has also been criticized by international community, therefore it cannot play the role of neutral arbiter in South Asia, which India can. Indian policy makers must not let this opportunity, for showcasing India’s leadership in its backyard, get wasted.

-Contributed by Kunwar Suryansh

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