Hours after the Maldives’ President Abdulla Yameen declared a state of emergency in the island nation and started rounding up his political opponents, former leader Mohamad Nasheed appealed to neighbouring India for help.
In a tweet, Mr Nasheed, who is in exile in Sri Lanka, urged India to send an “envoy, backed by its military” to the Maldives — an Indian Ocean archipelago best known as a luxury beach-holiday destination — to release political prisoners, including two Supreme Court judges.
“On behalf of Maldivian people,” Mr Nasheed wrote, “we request a physical presence.”
The unusual public request for a military intervention highlights the predicament facing India, as it watches the political crisis unfolding in its backyard.
Mr Nasheed’s plea has resonated with Indian foreign policy hawks, who are pushing for New Delhi to send troops to the Maldives to remove Mr Yameen, an autocrat who repeatedly snubbed India’s concerns by allowing China to gain a strategic foothold close to Indian shores.
“This is a clear-cut case for Indian intervention,” says Nitin Pai, co-founder of the Takshashila Institution, a public policy think-tank. “The regime in power is not just undemocratic and anti-democratic. It is explicitly playing the China card against India. It is emboldened by the fact that it can look to Pakistan and China for financial support — and ride roughshod over India’s concerns.”
But others feel that an armed intervention is too risky.
“It will take just four or five hours to take over Male, the capital, but the question is who would India install or what would be India’s end game,” said Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic affairs at New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research.
So far, Narendra Modi’s government has not given any signal that it would resort to force, despite its dismay at the emergency and the political arrests.
The Indian prime minister and US President Donald Trump discussed the Maldivian crisis in a phone call on Thursday, even as Mr Yameen’s government sent special envoys to China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to rally support for his administration.
“What has happened is a direct assault on the judiciary and a clear disregard for democracy and the rule of law,” an Indian official, who asked for anonymity, told the FT. “We are working with our close partners. Whatever we do has to be done together.”
Analysts agree that the manner in which India reacts to the Maldives’ crisis will test its claim to be a rising Asian power that can help guarantee regional security and stability. It will also examine how deftly New Delhi can influence events in its neighbourhood, as China seeks to expand its presence.
“There are expectations from many other countries — the US, the UK and Australia — that are looking to India,” says Constantino Xavier, a fellow at Carnegie India, a think-tank. “The ball is in Delhi’s court to do something.”
New Delhi has always considered the Maldives as part of its natural sphere of influence, given the archipelago’s proximity and strong historic and economic ties.
In 1988, New Delhi sent a lightning military expedition to help then Maldivian president Maumoon Gayoom — Mr Yameen’s estranged, and now jailed, half-brother — to repel an attempted coup by Sri Lankan mercenaries.
But over the past five years under Mr Yameen, the Maldives has forged closer bonds with China — echoing Beijing’s growing influence over other Indian neighbours, including Sri Lanka, Nepal Pakistan and Bhutan. In 2015, the Maldives amended its constitution to permit foreigners to buy land, paving the way for Chinese companies to acquire islands — which, India says, have potential military use
New Delhi’s relations with Male have deteriorated since 2012, when the government expropriated the Maldives’ main international airport from GMR Infrastructure, an Indian company that won a $511m contract to upgrade and operate it.
The widening rift was evident in August, when three Chinese military ships docked at a Maldivian port — dismaying New Delhi, which subsequently stepped up its contacts with the opposition.
Mr Yameen said he plans to bring forward the Maldives’ next elections, which were due later this year. But Indian officials say polls would be a farce without the participation of opposition leaders, who are now either in exile or in jail.
Analysts say Mr Modi will undoubtedly weigh the domestic political consequences of intervening in the Maldives, as he eyes up his own bid for re-election next year.
“It’s a tempting option politically,” Mr Xavier says of an intervention. “These are optically appealing solutions — a demonstration of strength and force, aligned with his language of ‘I am a strong leader in India and beyond India’.”
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