Maldives crisis: India’s foreign policy is not delivering in South Asia

15 February, 2018

International Affairs



Ever since the Maldives witnessed a serious political crisis, the political and media establishments of India have found themselves at a receiving end. Opinions are divided over how New Delhi should tackle the situation in Male.

For a section, India needs to wait and see while for others, it is high time India goes for an intervention, showing the Chinese and the outer world that she is no more a soft power who can be taken for granted. The worry with China’s growing clout in India’s neighbourhood has led to such a desperate thinking.

But it is much easier to prescribe a foreign policy move for India vis-à-vis Maldives now after its president Yameen Abdul Gayoom went for a severe crackdown against the Opposition and the country’s judiciary and imposed an emergency. New Delhi realistically has very little option in hand to stop Yameen’s excesses even if it ideally wants him to lose power.

Three decades ago, India had made an intervention in the island-state to save its ruler Gayoom, the current president’s half-brother, from losing power to conspirators. But there are wide differences between the situations in 1988 and 2018. Last time, India was backing the ruler while this time, it is the ruler who has been the agony for New Delhi.

However, it is China’s steady rise as a challenger to India in South Asia which makes the biggest difference between 1988 and 2018. And this something that is not haunting India just in the Maldives but in other smaller neighbours in the region as well.

Why India is failing to maintain a lead in South Asia?

Why is India not being able to maintain its lead in South Asia over China despite being a dominant regional power? The first and foremost reason is certainly New Delhi’s lack of vision. It has been seen over the years that India’s neighbourhood policy lacks consistency. Even if there are calls at times for unconditional reciprocation to the smaller neighbours, India has not really succeeded in getting rid of its ‘big brother’ image. And none other than New Delhi is responsible for this.

When Modi became the prime minister of India and he invited South Asian heads of state and representatives from the neighbouring countries, including Pakistan, it was thought that he was really looking forward to bury the failure of Manmohan Singh.

The initiative to sideline Pakistan in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation or Saarc in end 2014 to give sub-regionalism in South Asia a try was also praiseworthy. But things just fell apart from then on and the Modi government now looks in trouble to recover its image in South Asia. And even if it tries to do so, posing itself as a hard power -- which many think is the best option to avail at this stage, India will only hurt its interests more.

China’s BRI is taking the opportunity that Saarc couldn’t

India’s failure in South Asia is best reflected in the failure of the Saarc. Apart from the perennial tussle with Pakistan, New Delhi’s political elite’s superior complex vis-à-vis the smaller neighbours has also left Saarc a crippled initiative. New Delhi has taken it so casually over the years despite the occasional lip service to the Saarc’s prosperity that today, China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has stolen the show and one would not be surprised if it leaves the Saarc even formally defunct in days to come.

PM Modi started well but…

Modi started his term with a lot of goodwill towards the neighbours but as times progressed, it was seen that his government’s foreign policy is more about an individual stealing the focus of flashbulbs. Institutionally, the execution of a long-term policy has never been at par under the Modi government. There have been glimpses of the foreign policy establishment taking a more hawkish stance, even vis-à-vis a strong country like China. The end result has only gone against India’s interests.

India has a big disadvantage in its foreign policy decision-making vis-à-vis China. As a noisy democracy which seldom arrives at a consensus, India has a bigger challenge when it comes to backing camps in another country. The ideological aspects become key, thanks to India’s Nehruvian legacy, and they play a big and even delaying role in the decision-making.

New Delhi’s lack of a definite criterion when it comes to lay down its foreign policy makes it struggle at key periods. There is a general perception that as a democracy, India should be ideally back democratic forces but there have been several instances where the myth has been busted.

China focuses on its interests, who’s in power doesn’t matter 

Take China’s example, on the contrary. Beijing cares little about pro- or anti-democratic forces while expanding its horizon. Its only concern is its own economic interests and it will back anybody who serves its selfish interests. There is clearly no place for ideology or morality in China’s scheme of things. And this objectivity of the Chinese pays off particularly well with countries that are weak both politically and economically.

By alluring them with tremendous economic benefits, China wins support of their brittle political elite looking to stabilize their rule even at the expense of a debt trap. There is no surprise in the fact that almost all of India’s neighbours have joined the BRI initiative, leaving India isolated.

India in no position to better China in this race at the moment

Despite knowing the scenario, India is in no position to beat China in the race to become a hard power. Economically, she is not as powerful as China and politically, she lacks the internal cohesion to pursue a policy steadily. In 2015, the cancellation of Modi’s Maldives trip as a strong message to the Yameen regime in March 2015 was a blunder, to say the least.

China wasted no time in filling up the vacuum which was created by a moralistic India and it has only built on that everyday. Today, Beijing has cemented its presence in Male to such an extent that New Delhi can’t take a bold step as easily as it could do three decades back.

India’s struggle in the neighbourhood

India has struggled to deliver the best in its relation with countries like Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh in recent times and that has left them dissatisfied on many counts. The allegations of blockade against Nepal over its constitution and its aftereffects harmed India’s interests and the current Left alliance government has shown clear signs of pro-China stance.

Bhutan was not entirely happy with New Delhi locking horns with Beijing in Doklam which lies in its territory while Bangladesh is still hoping to see its Teesta water-sharing treaty with India to be a success.

Post-Rajapaksa Sri Lanka was considered to going against China but the current Sirisena government hasn’t exactly dumped Beijing because of economic gains. In Myanmar, India tried to shed its moral baggage and did not go against the government there over the Rohingya issue thinking it would push Naypitaw towards Beijing. The ‘doing nothing’ policy backfired as China got Myanmar and Bangladesh together and announced its three-point solution plan for the crisis.

There are problems far too many for India in its neighbourhood and New Delhi must act realistically to deal with them with a long-term plan. Having a phone call with US President Donald Trump will little help India’s interests since Washington itself is witnessing isolation in world politics today.