Diplomacy Politics

Nepal, Maldives poised to move out of Indian orbit

The South Asian region’s political map is transforming phenomenally. The early counting from Nepal’s parliamentary elections, which concluded on Thursday, suggests that the Left Alliance, which comprises the country’s communist parties, is surging ahead and will form the next government in Kathmandu.

The Left Alliance is notionally ‘pro-China’ in outlook. Simultaneously, the President of the Maldives, Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, has begun a four-day state visit to China.

The two are unrelated events but there is a common thread insofar as they signal an atrophy in India’s influence in the South Asia region, which can only be regarded as a foreign-policy failure on the part of the Modi government. Simply put, Maldives and Nepal could be moving out of the Indian orbit.

Broadly, what is happening can be attributed to the ‘muscular diplomacy’ practiced by the Modi government toward these small, vulnerable neighbors. It ought to be Nepal’s decision whether it wants  to be a secular country or a ‘Hindu Rashtra.’ New Delhi cannot punish Nepal for choosing its own path.

Frankly, it was downright stupid to have tried to pressure Nepal two years ago by imposing a two-month long economic blockade that led to acute shortages of fuel, cooking gas, medicines and other supplies from India. A perception grew that the Madhesi people (who are of Indian ancestry) in the southern region of Nepal, bordering India, were the latter’s fifth column.

India also erred seriously in mishandling relief work after the earthquake in Nepal in April 2015 by making it a public relations contest with the Chinese. The Nepalese felt disgusted with India’s one-upmanship. Indian diplomacy never regained its footing after that.

The anti-Indian sentiments that have resulted have seriously damaged India’s image, diminished its stature and weakened its influence in the country. To complicate matters further, reported dealings by New Delhi with the Nepali royalist camp (who are close to Hindu nationalist groups in India) in recent months can only have further irritated democratic forces across the board.

A police officer stands guard as officials start counting votes in Kathmandu's city hall a day after parliamentary and provincial elections in Nepal. December 8, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Navesh Chitrakar

A police officer stands guard as officials start counting votes in Kathmandu’s city hall a day after parliamentary and provincial elections in Nepal. December 8, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Navesh Chitrakar

In sum, the crudeness and rank opportunism of Indian attempts to prop up one favorite after another (while also playing one favorite against another) has brought matters to such a pass that today there is no single political constituency in Nepal willing to take New Delhi’s hand.

The story of India’s relations with the Maldives is no less dismal. New Delhi’s foreign and security policy establishment has been unwise in its injection into the relationship of too much geopolitics. The better way would have been to patiently strengthen interdependency between the nations. India (with a population of 1.3 billion) is the Maldives’ (which has a total of 417,492 people) nearest neighbor.

India has specific interests in the Maldives. Why does it have to form an alliance with the US to pressure the island nation? Equally, Modi’s blatant snub of Male’s attempts to host a visit by him smacked of petulance and imperial arrogance. There was nothing to lose by Modi undertaking a visit to Male. After all, he has visited Lahore.

India’s behavior has alienated both Nepal and Maldives and is compelling them to gravitate toward China as their benefactor

The nadir was reached, though, when New Delhi began providing a platform to the former Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed, the bête noire of the present regime in Male, from which he has attacked the latter. An impression has been created there is a ‘regime change’ project afoot – similar to what many suspect happened in Sri Lanka in January 2015 – and that Nasheed is being kept in the ante-room to be brought out and anointed at the right time.

Perceptions matter in relationships and New Delhi’s steamy affair with Nasheed has only put the Male regime’s back up.

Suffice to say, India’s behavior has alienated both Nepal and Maldives and is compelling them to gravitate toward China as their benefactor.

Both countries have strong affinities with India on a human and cultural level and neither can do without India’s help. China, indeed, cannot be a substitute for what India offers them. But Beijing has rolled out the red carpet for Yameen. He is the first South Asian leader to visit China after the Communist Party congress last month. There is powerful symbolism here. President Xi Jinping told Yameen, while receiving him at the Great Hall of the People, on Thursday, that China regards the Maldives as “an important partner in the construction of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.”

Yameen responded that the Maldives viewed China as “amongst our closest friends, most trusted and most dependable partners.” From the way Beijing has hyped up Yameen’s visit, it appears that it regards the Maldives as a more reliable partner than Sri Lanka in its Silk Road strategies in the Indian Ocean region.

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