Opinion Politics

Maldives: India draws a ‘thin line’ at UN, ahead of President polls?

Even as the Maldives Election Commission (EC) fixed 23 September for the first round  of presidential polls, larger neighbour India may end up becoming an ‘external issue’, as never before. That includes Elections-2013, when at the height of the ‘GMR controversy’, the camp of present-day President Abdulla Yameen and that of another hopeful and Jumhooree Party (JP) founder Gasim Ibrahim, accused India of aiding common rival and former MDP President Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed’s campaign.

Critics then charged India with allegedly influencing the Government of outgoing President and Nasheed’s successor, Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik, to slow down the ongoing criminal trial against the former in the ‘Judge Abdulla abduction case’. Yameen and Gasim also charged the ‘MDP-controlled’ EC of the time with inviting Indian techies to network election processes across the archipelago, which according to them was aimed at helping Nasheed’s election.

Today, when Yameen is completing his controversial first five-year term in office, and Nasheed and Gasim are self-exiled while on ‘prison leave’ on medical grounds while undergoing court-ordered prison terms, India is again in the news. This time, bilateral relations are strained as never before.

India was indifferent at best to the first democracy polls in 2008, when Nasheed was elected President, dethroning incumbent Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, whom his MDP dubbed ‘despot for three decades’. In this, Nasheed had the second-round support from JP’s Gasim, and also the forgotten Hassan Saeed, who has since ‘retired’ from active politics.

Today, Nasheed, Gasim, Gayoom and Adhaalath Party (AP) leader, Sheikh Imran, are all unavailable to contest elections. The former two are jailed and are in self-exile while the latter two are in jail and in Maldives. On Wednesday, 13 June, the criminal court ordered Gayoom to 19 months’ imprisonment along with Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed and Supreme Court Justice Ali Hameed, for alleged conspiracy to upturn the ‘elected Government’ through the 1 February SC order.

India has since reacted sharply to the trial court verdict. “It is… with deep dismay that we learned that the former President of the Maldives as well as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court are being sentenced to long prison terms without fair trial,” the Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement. “This casts doubt on the commitment of the Government of the Maldives to uphold the rule of law and will also call into question the credibility of the entire process of Presidential elections in September this year.”

UNSC vote

That India does not approve of Yameen’s ‘undemocratic ways’, as the nation’s post-Cold War western allies have been seeing the neighbourhood scenario, has been known for long. In measured, and at times ‘erratic turns’, India has been publicly urging the Yameen leadership to restore ‘democracy’, including freedom and poll-participation rights for all Opposition leaders.

In this, India cited the controversial 1 February SC judgement, which also led to President Yameen proclaiming a ‘State of Emergency’ four days later and extending up to 45 days. Even a couple of weeks ago, India’s External Affairs Minister publicly declined Maldivian counterpart Mohamed Asim’s ‘repeated invitation’ for visiting the nation, citing non-compliance of Indian conditionalities in this regard.

It is in this background the ‘surprise’ Indian vote for Maldives in the latter’s failed bid for the non-permanent Asia seat in the UN Security Council (UNSC) – and as claimed by Male – needs to be viewed. Maldives lost the election to Indonesia, by a humiliating 46-144 vote-difference. Apart from the increasingly strained bilateral ties, the Indian media speculation in this regard also flowed from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s three-nation South-East Asia visit only a week earlier.

Indonesia was on his agenda, and in the geo-strategic context, involving India’s love-hate relationship with ‘emerging super-power’ China, the nation counts as much as Maldives in ways, and for exactly opposite reasons.

Under Yameen, Maldives has moved closer to China almost at one go, after President Nasheed had inaugurated the Chinese Embassy in Male on the very day then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was setting foot on the nation, for the SAARC Summit in November 2011.

It was ‘secret ballot’ at the UNSC, and the Indian media quoted MEA spokesperson as saying that the nation was in the habit of sharing voting-decisions. However, Maldives’ India Ambassador, Ahmed Mohamed, lost no time in tweeting that India had given written assurances to his country at the UN as late as 7 June, only days before the UNSC vote.

‘Bullying’, not ‘sanctioning’

The purported Indian vote for Maldives came only days after the nation’s Immigration authorities had denied entry to Ahmed Nihan, parliamentary Majority Leader of Yameen’s ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), when he landed at the Chennai Airport, purportedly for continual medical consultations. However, the authorities allowed Yameen’s sister and brother-in-law, who were coming with Nihan and for similar reasons.

Back home after being ‘deported’, Nihan alleged that India was seeking to ‘bully’ his nation, but would not call it ‘selective sanctions’ against Yameen’s aides that some western nations were anyway considering to impose.  As always, India did not comment on the episode, but that added an additional reason for the nation’s media and foreign policy analysts to speculate that the UNSC vote would rather go against Maldives – hence, too, in favour of Indonesia.

If the Maldivian claims to the Indian vote are to be accepted, then New Delhi seems to have drawn a thin line between State-level dealings and sticking to past commitments, and distinguishing it from personality-centric equations with the present regime in Male. According to Maldivian officials, India was committed to voting for Maldives twice earlier, and the recent one was the third of the kind – and in writing.

Call for ‘clean pair’

Independent of diplomatic niceties and thin lines of the kind, the Indian decision may have also taken into consideration the real possibility of Yameen returning to power for a second term, especially considering the way the four-party joint opposition (JO) has been conducting its affairs. Even as the Yameen campaign has been repeatedly talking about ‘development’ of the China-funded ‘sea-bridge’, connecting capital Male and airport-island Huluhule, independent of Indian reservations and the like, the JO has been fighting itself on multiple fronts.

More recently, JP’s Gasim, living in Germany, joined issue with the MDP for unilateral party primaries for the presidential polls, returning ‘disqualified’ Nasheed as the ‘unanimous choice’ without consulting others, which charge the party had denied earlier. He has said that the JO should go in for a ‘clean pair’ of presidential candidate and vice-presidential running-mate. He has also clarified that the chosen pair should not be ab initio disqualified under the existing laws of the land, nor should there be possible chances of court cases and arrest warrants, lest their candidacy could be marred in controversies from which they may not be able to come out at all.

Nasheed has since tweeted that they were still ready to discuss a common candidate, but the ‘illegal’ MDP primaries itself seemed to have been motivated by the party’s overzealousness to negotiate from a ‘position of proven strength’, and by promoting Nasheed ahead of any other ‘common candidate’, including one from his own party.

MDP’s Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Solih, is a front-runner from within the party, it would seem, but the leadership may have to convince other JO partners of his ‘winnability’, if at all it is really ready to move its sights away from Nasheed.

Learning however from his experience from the earlier alliance with Nasheed, JO’s Gasim has also said that all electoral negotiations now should also cover seat-sharing for the parliamentary polls, due next year. After coming their 16 and 17 percent vote-shares respectively, to Nasheed in the second, run-off round in the historic presidential polls of 2008, both Gasim Ibrahim and Hassan Saeed (now retired) found the MDP ‘stabbing us in the back’, by having them in the Government for only a few weeks and having them out ahead of the parliamentary polls in mid-2009.

With the MDP especially seeking to make the UNSC vote too as an election issue against Yameen, and Nasheed’s candidacy too becoming clearly untenable under the circumstances, shadow-boxing of a kind has already commenced within the MDP, linking both. Dr Ahmed Shaeed, Foreign Minister under the short-lived Nasheed regime and later UN Human Rapporteur for post-Saddam Iraq, has since joined issue with his predecessor, Abdulla Shahid from the Gayoom era, who was also non-MDP/anti-MDP Parliament Speaker through 2008-13, for announcing Maldives candidacy for the UNSC seat in September 2008.

Abdulla Shahid has since defended his decision, but the fact remains he is also an aspirant for the MDP-led presidential candidacy if Nasheed were unable to contest, and the party is unwilling to concede the nomination to other JO partners, or a ‘surprise’ outsider-candidate. Ahmed Shaeed’s ambitions are not known, but like Shahid, he parted company with 2008 poll-partner Hassan Saeed, for whom he was the running-mate but whom he ditched to join the Nasheed camp and the MDP, full time.

It’s not a coincidence that Ahmed Shaheed drew flak from sections of the nation’s religious and political conservatives (not all of them ‘fundamentalists’ as understood from outside) when he accepted the UN job pertaining to ‘Islamic’ Iraq after the US had ‘targeted’ Saddam Hussein without any proof of WMD in his hands. ‘Speaker’ Shahid had a brother of his arrested and investigated under President Waheed on corruption charges flowing from his own past governmental career. The status of the case and the link, if any, to Shahid and other possible cases that the Yameen Government could foist against him, is not known.

‘Gayoom-centric’?

In the midst of all these, the JO seems to have forgotten octogenarian Gayoom, who was languishing in prison in the ‘conspiracy case’ and condemned now after the trial court verdict. Gayoom’s defence team can be expected to appeal the verdict but the end-result is not unpredictable under the prevailing circumstances. Earlier, the trial court had declined defence’s submission for transferring Gayoom to ‘house arrest’ (available under the local laws), owing to his age and health issues, pending trial.

In this context, deflecting the JO’s and hence voter-attention away from Nasheed and Gasim, and identifying on a ‘surprise candidate’ and campaigning on Gayoom’s imprisonment and health condition, may give them an electoral edge, if at all, against Yameen.  

Arguments of the MDP kind that their cadres would not accept anyone other than Nasheed could well mean that the party is not as much opposed to democracy as is intent on returning to power.

Going by the votes that they had polled in Elections-2013, between them Nasheed and Gasim could ensure a clear victory for the JO. Yet, there is no real knowing of the mood of the first-time voters, or even the second-time voters, especially.  Against this, most of the near-30 percent votes that Yameen got in the first-round in 2013 were those of Gayoom’s, when they were together. With Gasim adding his 25 percent in the second round, Yameen made up 52 percent cumulative in the run-off against Nasheed, who polled 47 and 49 percent, respectively, in the two rounds.

Better still now, even Gayoom’s worst critics on democracy issues, who used to be from the MDP earlier, could not deny him credit for transforming Maldives into a ‘modern, Islamic nation’ with a burgeoning economy based on resort-tourism, from being a nation of sleepy islanders, living a hand-to-mouth existence on their daily catch of artisanal fishing – and almost nothing else. His age, health condition and imprisonment are of concern to every Maldivian in a way.

Many Maldivians also see Yameen as having divided the Gayoom children on either side of the political-divide, to sub-serve his own electoral ambitions and nothing else. While Gayoom’s eldest son and political-heir, Faaris Maumoon, is in prison with him, a twin-daughter Yumna has always identified with their father. After Gayoom’s arrest, the other and the more popular of the twins, Dunya Maumoon, too quit the Yameen Government, to campaign for their father’s freedom, while a son, Ghassan, alone continues to identify with Yameen, with a relatively low-profile political presence.

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