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Southern doorstep

Neena Gopal | 30th Nov 2012

That India’s new foreign minister Salman Khurshid called his Maldivian counterpart and strongly advised Male to re-examine its decision to scrap that country’s $500-million airport contract with GMR Infrastructure, not once but twice is an indicator of how little Delhi can influence events in this Indian Ocean archipelago anymore. Male went ahead anyway, giving GMR a mere seven days to exit the islands, setting off an angry exchange between the two capitals. Delhi is furious. Not just at the unacceptable implication that its envoy had been partisan in the row over GMR — he has not — but at the seeming slap in the face. It was at Delhi’s active urging that investments had poured into the Maldives in the first place, particularly the Ibrahim Nasir airport on Hulhule island, which saw several bids, and yet, nobody but GMR would touch.

Male is using legalese to dump a controversial inves-tor which it says has refused to “co-operate” and thereby attempts to distance itself from the main sticking point — GMR’s plans to charge a user development fee as stipulated in the contract, over and above the $25 already charged by the government and cleared by Parliament, rounding it off to $54 per passenger in an economy almost completely dependent on inbound tourism.

Maldives is trying to put a lid on the fiasco with Male stressing that “India isn’t GMR and GMR isn’t India”, with the President’s advisers insisting that it is after all a private company, and that other Indian corporate interests, like the State Bank of India, the Tatas’ Taj group of hotels and a host of other private entrepreneurs that em­ploy hundreds of Indians, continuing to operate, unaffected, untouched in this tourist paradise.

Once seen as a constant in India’s ever-dwindling arc of allies in the neighbourhood, and former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom a firm favourite in New Delhi, temperatures are rising here in more ways than one. And India, barely treading water, can no longer take this linchpin in its southern sphere of influence for granted.

The current Mohammed Waheed government is pre-paring the ground not just to discredit the ousted “people’s leader” and former President Mohammed Na-sheed in the year-long run-up to presidential elections in October 2013, but to ensure that he is ineligibile to stand as a presidential candidate; against either Mr Waheed himself, who it is increasingly clear has presidential ambitions of his own, or Gayoom’s daughter, Dhunya, the current junior foreign minister, seen as a potential rival to the sitting President.

GMR is the first brick in that wall. Questions over whether its operations are as a transparent as they should have been, whether monies were siphoned off to Mr Nasheed’s cronies will come to dominate the national discourse in the coming weeks. Local politics trumping strategic interests; India, left wringing its hands in frustration.

The “coup” that ousted Mr Nasheed earlier this year was Delhi’s first test. Many believe that in not speaking out on behalf of an elected President, taking a more robust role and allowing then vice-president Waheed to persuade them otherwise, the promise that the new dispensation would follow the letter of the law, was India’s first blunder. Clea-rly, this southern doorstep is coming unhinged. It uncannily mirrors events in another neighbour, Sri Lanka, where despite sustained pressure from Delhi to rehabilitate the Tamils, Colombo’s increasingly right-leaning government flies in the face of advice to implement the 13th Amend-ment. The Waheed government, much to India’s alarm, is also tapping into that self-same revisionist ideology, falling back on Islamic orthodoxy, some say, to shore up its conservative votebank in the face of Mr Nasheed’s youthful and brash support base that turned out in goodly number in the first multi-party elections to elect him as President in 2008.

A pointer, if any is needed that walking softly but with a big stick does not always secure Indian interests.

The firm friendship that the Gayooms and the Gandhis shared stood India in good stead for some 30 years with Mr Gayoom ever grateful to India’s quick response in quelling the coup attempt in 1988 while quietly dealing with two other failed putsches earlier.

The payback came in the form of increased military and security ties.

India has trained Maldi-vian anti-terror personnel. The Indian Navy works closely with Male on an advanced radar and surveillance system across the far-flung islands, its transfer of the INS Tillanchang, a 260-tonne fast attack craft to the Maldives, helps both navies to work in tandem and keep the waters free of gun-runners, terrorists and other infiltration.

In fact, security topped the agenda during last week’s visit to India by new foreign minister Abdul Samad Abdullah.

A member of the delegation tells me that while India had been kept in the loop these last eight months as Maldivian unease grew over a deal wrapped up by Nasheed’s government, it was at this meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmo­han Singh that the Mal­divians formally informed India of the decision to show GMR the door.

“It was a long time coming,” a senior official in Male said. “But it’s not aimed at wrecking our friendship with Big Brother India,” he added, scoffing at reports of a growing Chinese presence in his country. Indeed, the Maldives has limited the Chinese to “smaller projects in the economic and social sector”. China’s push to secure the Marao atoll as a base by 2010 has not come to fruition. Instead, the outwardly serene island nation’s ties with India remain strong. Language and customs tie the islands firmly to the southern states of India where over 2,000 students pursue higher studies and many Maldivian businessmen have a base.

But the internal chur­ning and the changing aspirations of the Maldi­vians, spurred by the social media, just as “reliable” Gayoom exits the stage — he has said he will not be a candidate in the 2013 elections — have irrevocably changed the islands. Not all slumber, a world away from reality. Its population of 300,000 people has tasted the rough and tumble of politics after an enforced isolation under Mr Gayoom’s selective bene­v­o­lence that benefited some, but not everybody.

Politics and populism. Always a dangerous mix. More so, at our doorstep.

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