Election results in the Maldives don’t solve India’s intervention dilemma

The people of the Maldives voted for a change on September 23. The joint opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, according to provisional results, emerged victorious, bagging 58% of the votes polled. India was quick to congratulate — in a statement released by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), India welcomed “the triumph of democratic forces in the Maldives”. This result came as a relief to New Delhi because incumbent dictator-president Abdulla Yameen had titled entirely towards China. Having concluded that he had Beijing’s back, Yameen went about repressing civil liberties inside the Maldives and unnecessarily provoking India.

Matters came to a head in February when Yameen, in response to the Maldives’ Supreme Court ordering release of political prisoners, imposed a state of emergency and arrested judges of the top court and members of the opposition. Opposition leader-in-exile and former president Mohamed Nasheed asked for New Delhi’s intervention. But India just chose to issue platitudinous statements.

After Solih’s victory, some strategic affairs commentators in India have wholeheartedly lauded New Delhi’s patience in not heeding to “hawkish” voices which asked for a military intervention in February. They say that New Delhi’s restraint helped the democratic opposition as Yameen could not use an anti-India plank to build up a nationalistic election campaign. They also point to India’s recent botched experience of using a non-military intervention in Nepal — in the form of an economic blockade — and praised New Delhi for refraining to use the instrument of economic sanctions against the Maldives. Economic pressure from India would have alienated the Maldivian public opinion, the argument goes. There has also been a suggestion that Solih’s victory is a fine exemplar of India’s regional statecraft. What is the need for tough, military options after all if the same result could be achieved by quiet, behind the scenes work?

The biggest problem with all these arguments is that they assume that India has already achieved its outcome in the Maldives and the dilemma of intervention has been left far behind. But that is not the case. There were some indications on September 26 that Yameen may not let go of his position even though he has already conceded defeat in the election.

Ahmed Mahloof, the spokesperson of the joint opposition, tweeted that the Yameen government was trying to get the election result annulled. He also told the press that the government in Malé had asked the election commission to delay announcing the final results. In the event, a statement each from the military and the police promising to uphold the election verdict ended up assuaging Mahloof’s concerns. But Yameen is slated to remain in power till November 17 and if he chooses to play further tricks, the question of intervention will come back to haunt New Delhi.

The praise for the Indian statecraft is a bit misleading. The presidential election in the Maldives did not happen in the best of circumstances. Most international observers have reported that the election was not free and fair. If Yameen had won through blatant rigging, would we still be praising Indian statecraft and restraint?

Even though the result in the Maldives is favourable to India, this is not a moment to run away from the question of intervention. It will definitely crop up in the future, either in the Maldives or somewhere else in South Asia. India claims the mantle of regional leadership. One cannot simultaneously be a leader and also the good boy in the room. It is true that interventions will necessarily please one group and alienate another, but that is the cost of leadership. India should decide on intervening based on a clear assessment of its own national interests.

Having stayed after imposing emergency and weathering India’s criticism, Yameen continued to provoke India by hosting the Pakistani army chief and asking New Delhi to take back its helicopters. Of late, emboldened by his success, KP Sharma Oli of Nepal has been treading a similar path. Oli recently chose to embarrass India by pulling the Nepalese army out of a BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) military drill but went ahead with a joint military exercise with China.

India cannot wish away the option of intervening in the neighbourhood. The instrument of intervention should definitely be carefully zeroed upon. Economic blockades do hurt ordinary people, not just rulers. But New Delhi cannot let tyrants get away after hurting India’s interests.

In normal times, India should be generous towards neighbours without even demanding reciprocity. But it should also let its red lines known very clearly and be willing to enforce them — if required, using military options. If New Delhi thinks otherwise, it should stop making a song and dance about being the regional leader.

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