The “Wuhan consensus,” borne out of the informal meeting between India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping hardly ten weeks ago may run into headwinds in an improbable setting in the Indian Ocean.
Someone is stoking the fires of dormant India-Maldives tensions. What comes to mind is Vladimir Lenin’s famous line: “Who stands to gain?” Of course, it can’t be Modi.
On June 14, Washington issued a strident statement deploring the democracy deficit in the Maldives, within hours of a strikingly similar statement by South Block earlier in the day. Modi’s new foreign-policy narrative stressing India’s strategic autonomy and regionalism and rejecting the US’ containment strategy against China has rubbed Washington the wrong way.
Geopolitically, there is much at stake here, too – arms exports, Quad, creation of a “second island chain” linking Maldives with Diego Garcia and so on.
However, this may be only a part of story. Ironically, Delhi’s tough statement on the democracy deficit in Maldives coincides with an unprecedented report by the United Nations Human Rights Council condemning India’s track record in Kashmir. The UN report demands the constitution of an impartial international commission to investigate India’s alleged human rights violations in Kashmir.
The Modi government promptly rebuffed the UN, underscoring that India is a sovereign country. Now, isn’t the Maldives a sovereign country, too? By asserting the Westphalian principles, Modi government followed an established Indian tradition of rejecting the need to be accountable to the international community on its internal affairs.
Indeed, India brazenly did business with the military regime in Myanmar despite its abominable human rights record. Delhi covertly supported Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh when she forced the opposition out of election arena to gerrymander the results in the last parliamentary poll and retain power. The Indian elites cutting across party lines get along splendidly with the sheiks in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who do not even know what democracy and human rights mean.
So, why this differentiated approach to Maldives? Simply put, Delhi is raising the petard of democracy in Maldives to cover up its interference in that country’s internal affairs – just as it once exploited Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka or the rights of Madhesi people (Indian migrants) in Nepal.
The Indian public doesn’t even know that this brawl involving Maldives is not really about the ban that Male has put on recruitment of Indians for jobs on the island. In reality, the current face-off devolves upon the activities of Indian security agencies.
The Maldives imports manpower but is fighting shy of depending on Indians anymore, fearing that Indian security agencies would recruit the Diaspora as a “fifth column” spread across the remote chain of 1,200 small coral islands and sandbanks, which comprise that island nation, over which Male lacks the capacity to monitor any dubious activities by foreigners.
The core issue here is why Maldives gets so paranoid about Indians. However, instead of looking into the misperceptions (on both sides), Indian agencies began retaliating by using visas as a tool to punish the Maldivian ruling elite. In a highly provocative act, Delhi deported a Maldivian VIP, Ahmed Nahin who arrived at Chennai airport ten days ago for medical treatment.
Nahin heads the ruling Progressive Party’s parliamentary wing in Male and, being a Maldivian MP, he actually enjoys entry without a visa in SAARC countries. But he was summarily deported from Chennai airport without any explanation. Simply put, Indian security agencies flexed their muscle to insult President Abdulla Amin by humiliating one of his key political aides.
Most certainly, it had the intended effect: President Amin hit back by clamping down restrictions on Indian expatriates. And Delhi’s strident statement on June 14 regarding democracy and human rights followed.
Meanwhile, who actually took this crude decision on Naheen’s deportation remains unclear. It cannot possibly be Modi’s decision, since the incident took place only a week after he made a platinum grade speech in Singapore on June 1 presenting his vision of a “free, open, prosperous” Indo-Pacific.
It is an open secret that elements within the Indian security establishment are unable to reconcile with the “Wuhan consensus.” Sino-Indian rapprochement hits interest groups who thrive on the border tensions in the Himalayas. A rollback of India’s Tibet-related “muscular policy” may even put some of them out of business. Thus, Maldives becomes a theatre where a pantomime is unfolding to snuff out the “Wuhan spirit.”
The assumption here is that the newfound “Wuhan spirit” might evaporate if dormant geopolitical rivalries in Maldives could be somehow rekindled. Arguably, India (population: 1300 million) shouldn’t even try to redeem its regional stature by getting into a brawl with Maldives (population: 0.4 million) – let alone work toward a “regime change” in the upcoming elections in September.
On June 13, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman once again forcefully rejected imputations regarding Chinese intentions in the Maldives, rejecting them as “total nonsense” and “false allegations.” In the circumstances, what is needed is more strategic communication between Delhi and Beijing.
Clearly, a reset of India’s relations with Maldives, similar to what is happening in regard of Nepal, is overdue. For that to happen, Modi must take a “hands-on” approach. If Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un could meet to settle their differences, why not Modi and Amin?