An atoll-sized problem unsettles the regional giant
SO UNEXPECTED was the arrival of Mohamed Nasheed behind the walls of India’s high commission in Male, the capital of the Maldives, on February 13th, that he had nowhere to sleep. In the end the former president camped on a bed set up in the first secretary’s office. More than a week on, Mr Nasheed, the only leader of the tiny Indian Ocean nation to have been democratically elected, remains hunkered down among the high commission’s Indian diplomats.
Mr Nasheed (pictured, above, entering the high commission) is claiming sanctuary because, he says, he fears being locked up. He is keen to contest a presidential election in which his party expects to do well. But he says that since he was dislodged from office a year ago—in what he understandably calls a coup—the interim government of Waheed Hassan has been scheming to get him barred from running. Now a warrant is out for his arrest after he failed to attend a court hearing this month, over alleged ill-treatment of a judge.
The election is due in September, but Mr Hassan’s main backer, the former dictator, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, looks determined to keep the liberal and telegenic Mr Nasheed out of office. Local politics in the Muslim archipelago with a population of 400,000 look as tortured as ever.
What has changed recently is India’s passive stance. Last year it acquiesced in Mr Nasheed’s ousting, meekly refusing to call for early elections. India had “no business” interfering, said a spokesman then, so long as stability could be assured. Today, by contrast, Indian officials justify sanctuary for Mr Nasheed by saying conditions for a fair election must be assured, adding that he is also concerned for his personal safety. The government in Male calls that meddling.
India is more active, in part, because the former president is adept at promoting his cause. Asking for a safe place to stay, last week, he argued that the future stability of the Indian Ocean was at stake. That played on Indian anxiety over maritime co-operation and the placement of Indian radars on atolls in the Maldives, and reinforced a growing sense that commercial interests are threatened. The biggest of these—a $500m project by GMR, an Indian construction firm, for the main airport in the country—is now in dispute. A court in Singapore will decide whether the outsiders will forfeit much of their investment.
By pushing harder for a fair, timely election, India is having to learn more of “the fine arts of dealing with other people’s troubles”, concludes C. Raja Mohan, an observer of foreign policy in the region. The Maldives is difficult, with India’s diplomats lamenting they are caught in the “cross-currents” of local politics. But if the regional giant cannot influence events in this tiny country, it will struggle to project its interests in weightier places.