- The US is waiting for India to mess things up with the Maldives
Salman Khurshid has discovered
within a month in his new job that some things have not changed in
India’s external affairs in nearly twenty years. When P.V. Narasimha Rao
promoted Khurshid within a few days of the latter’s 40th birthday in
1993 from deputy minister for commerce to minister of state for external
affairs, one of his first tasks was to read out the Riot Act to the
Maldives. Last month, he found himself engaged in the same brief almost
two decades after his first such encounter.
government was tipped off then that the Maldivians were secretly cosying
up to Pakistan. India’s neighbourhood was already unfriendly: not far
from the Maldives, the wily Ranasinghe Premadasa, who ruled Colombo, was
deeply distrustful of India so soon after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination,
and, to both India’s east and west, the demolition of the Babri Masjid a
few months earlier had made the environment tense and unpredictable.
president of the Maldives for three decades, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, had
cultivated the reputation that he was a friend of India, but he was
steadily allowing an undercurrent of Islamization to take root in his
island nation of atolls with money from Arab Gulf states flowing in for
building mosques vastly out of proportion with his country’s small
population and for other religious activities.
summoned Gayoom’s foreign minister, Fathulla Jameel, to New Delhi where
he was handed over to Khurshid one evening. Jameel was then Asia’s
longest serving foreign minister (he stayed in that office eventually
for 27 years), and South Block knew he could read the writing on a South
Asian wall. Getting India’s junior foreign minister to speak to him was
itself a message to the Maldives when protocol required Khurshid’s
boss, Dinesh Singh, the external affairs minister to engage his
counterpart from Male.
operation was somewhat cloak and dagger. There was no public
announcement of Jameel’s arrival and his visit was handled in South
Block largely by its Pakistan division and not the one handling the
Maldives. The young Khurshid acquitted himself well and Male did not
cross the proverbial lakshman rekha with Islamabad as subsequent events testified.
two decades ago, there is no certainty that India can now force the
Maldives to fall in line on the latest irritant in their bilateral
relations over the problem of the Male airport contract. No amount of
spin can save India’s face if that happens and New Delhi loses Male
forever because of bad judgement in South Block on the current
thing, the Rao government’s unpublicized, but clinically targeted,
confrontation with Male was over an issue of national interest and
security. India’s latest fight with the Maldives is over a deal with a
private contractor, however much New Delhi might whitewash it as a
matter of supreme national concern. In fact, the grapevine in New Delhi
and Thiruvananthapuram is full of innuendoes that Arvind Kejriwal has
enough material on the ‘East-India-Company-type approach’ by some
Indian businesses in the Maldives that will produce another of his
bombshells, even if it may occur only closer to the next Lok Sabha
elections for maximum effect.
In any case,
having sullied its hands in the till on a succession of
corruption-tainted corporate deals in recent years, the United
Progressive Alliance government has no credibility left when it speaks
for Indian businesses abroad. In part, that explains the attitude in
Male to New Delhi’s demands on behalf of the GMR Group, whose airport
contract has been cancelled. But there is also a larger dimension to the
episode that points to a colossal foreign policy failure within the UPA
government that is largely self- inflicted. It is a drift, which, if
unchecked — and it may already be too late — can have ramifications that
South Block cannot afford either in the country’s neighbourhood or on
any larger geographic scale.
times, there has been a steady stream of instances when the ministry of
external affairs forgot a golden rule in diplomacy that reaction to any
development overseas has to be measured, proportionate and calculated to
produce the maximum impact.
year, the ministry had egg on its face when it disproportionately
became engaged in a Calcutta couple’s child custody dispute in Norway
that turned out to be a case of marital discord combined with health
problems of one of the parents. It is no one’s suggestion that such
consular issues should be neglected. But, for the minister for external
affairs of a country that aspires to be a global power to personally get
involved in such matters instead of leaving them to his joint secretary
dealing with the country concerned or to the chief passport officer is
to waste New Delhi’s considerable diplomatic capital abroad.
case of this kind was perhaps in April this year when the United States
of America’s deputy chief of mission in New Delhi was summoned to South
Block over a mere 75-minute delay in clearing the actor, Shah Rukh Khan,
at White Plains airport in New York. The summons was preceded by the
unedifying spectacle of a procession of members of the UPA’s council of
ministers going on record protesting against what is a normal delay that
millions of Indian citizens like Khan regularly face at airports the
world over in the course of their travels.
of such examples of diplomatic excess pale into insignificance before
the bad judgment that South Block is now displaying on the airport row
with the Maldives. The defence minister A.K. Antony is a man who does
not speak out of turn before TV cameras and, instead, does what he has
to do in private. So, it is not yet clear to those outside the
government if Antony has brought to the attention of the prime minister
and his cabinet colleagues the risks involved in an undesirable
government intervention in a private business dispute with Male at this
stage, and the stakes in such ill-advised action for India’s defence and
Those in New
Delhi who are threatening to cut off aid to the Maldives — a pittance
of $25 million — could not be unaware that Antony made a highly
sensitive visit to the Maldives in August 2009. Typical of the defence
minister’s style, the visit was low profile, but the composition of his
team was a dead giveaway. India’s defence minister would not spend as
many as three full working days in a tiny country like the Maldives,
that too accompanied, among others, by his defence secretary, the
director-general of the coast guard, at least one vice admiral and the
deputy chief of naval staff unless there is very important business to
be transacted with his hosts.
visit put together by the ministry of defence, the navy had begun a
strategic initiative to establish a bridgehead in the once-critical
World War II royal air force base of Gan, which the British vacated and
handed over to the Maldives in 1976. In addition to a presence in Gan,
Antony and his team unveiled, during that visit, the road-map for an
Indian naval and air force presence permanently in Male and in the
Maldivian atoll of Haa Dhalu. This has been one of the navy’s biggest
initiatives since it began a rapid expansion a few years ago.
Those in the
UPA government who are demanding punishment of a sovereign state for
cancelling an airport contract are ignoring the reality that today the
Maldives is being wooed by big powers because of its strategic location.
It is a failure of recent Indian diplomacy that the Maldivians are now
willing to be wooed. That would have been unthinkable in the years of
Indira Gandhi, her son Rajiv or their successor, Rao.
The man of
the moment in Male is the US assistant secretary of state for South
Asia, Robert Blake, who knows the atolls well from the time he lived in
Colombo as the American ambassador. Blake is now waiting for India to
mess up its relations with the Maldives and walk away with Gan, giving
the Pentagon its biggest gift in the region since Diego Garcia military
base in 1971.