The focus of this discussion is on two of India’s neighbours – Maldives and Bangladesh – both experiencing political turbulence following significant court judgements concerning the political opposition in respective countries –
- In Maldives, the Supreme Court has ordered the release of political opponents who have been imprisoned by the authoritarian regime and this has brought President Yameen Gayoom into a standoff with the judiciary leading to the imposition of a national emergency.
- In Bangladesh, the opposition leader and former Prime Minister Begum Khaleeda Zia has been held guilty on corruption charges by a court and has led to simmering tensions in its polity. India as a regional leader and a well-wisher of these countries, is watching the developments closely and as it braces for possible impact it is also considering options to help resolve the crisis in both the countries.
India’s response over the ongoing crisis in Maldives has been cautious, measured and responsible instead of resorting to any knee-jerk reaction. Of course, the situation in Maldives and Bangladesh are qualitatively different. In Bangladesh the case has taken its due course and arrived at a final judgement and the ruling against Khaleeda Zia doesn’t seem to be politically motivated. Although, the opposition led by BNP has questioned the sentencing and has cast doubts over the government’s intentions. This topic can be very sensitive in Bangladesh considering that it is due for fresh elections.
Maldives – a critical case
Maldives is a different case altogether; it is located slightly far away in a different maritime zone whereas Bangladesh shares a long border with India. The internal dynamics of Maldives has been highly fluid since 2012 and India is not sure of the kind of actions that the Maldivian government might take. Hence India needs to calibrate its response according to the situation and India would do well by not resorting to the temptation of an immediate military intervention, which has been the desire of former President Nasheed and as well as few hawkish commentators and observers. India will have to calibrate its responses according to the emerging situation in Maldives.
The political turmoil in Maldives has been going on since 2012-13 and the ensuing instability has severely compromised India’s interests in the Indian Ocean region. Maldives being our maritime neighbour, ensuring its political stability is at the very core of India’s foreign policy and strategic objectives. This period of instability in Maldives has been accompanied with the rising influence of China and this is no coincidence. China stands accused of land grab in the name of infrastructure development by various sections of Maldivians. China has begun investing heavily in the Maldivian economy and this explains its eagerness to sign up to the maritime silk route which is a part of China’s OBOR initiative.
Maldives recently rushed in to sign a FTA with China even if that meant an erosion of parliamentary propriety. Thus in the last 5 years the two pillars of democracy – the Supreme Court and the Parliament (Majilis) have been severely compromised during Yameen Gayoom’s rule and this represents a threat to Indian interests in the region. On the security front, the rising trend of radical Wahhabism and growing appeal for ISIS in Maldives poses a clear and present danger for India’s national security as well. Hence, India has been justifiably concerned over these developments and has called on Yameen Gayoom to respect the orders of the Supreme Court and restore democratic rule in the island state. India is not alone on this regard, in fact most western powers have expressed similar viewpoints and have backed India in its role to stabilise Maldives.
Bangladesh – tiding over internal struggles
The developments in Bangladesh also present an interesting challenge to India. The Sheikh Hasina government is preparing for the upcoming elections in December 2018 and is riding on a high tide backed by a consistent growth of around 6.5% and it has a current account surplus, a distinction not enjoyed by most countries. So the political turmoil triggered by the arrest of opposition leader Khalida Zia may not have much of an impact on the elections because of the favourable economic performance by the Sheihk Hasina government. But the closeness of Khalida Zia’s party – the BNP, to Pakistan and radical outfits like the Jamaat-e-Islami is a cause for concern to India.
For India, its interests are best served when the Awami League is in power. Sheikh Hasina’s government was instrumental in cracking down on the north-east insurgent groups in 2009-10 and has addressed most of India’s security concerns. India in turn has recently sealed the historic Land Boundary Agreement which has resolved the enclave issue and hopefully if the long awaited Teesta water sharing agreement is signed it will propel the ties further.
India is definitely seen as a regional player in the South Asian region and both countries represent a strategic interest for India. In Maldives, India should be watching the developments closely but without making a big fuss about growing ties between Maldives and China. China being a heavy weight in economic and military terms, it will be sought out by smaller countries in the region. India should deftly provide a counter balance as a better alternative to China in the economic and security domain and refrain from a high handed approach towards small countries in South Asia and in the Indian Ocean Region. But at the same time, India’s ideological and realpolitik interests are under threat in Maldives. While upholding democratic and human rights principles represent the ideological strand, protecting India’s security and economic interests represent the strand of realpolitik. Thus, India should draw a few red lines for itself and for other players as well, including China, the crossing of which should draw India into initiating commensurate action; else India should refrain from an alarmist approach and instead push for the upholding of common interests of the region. The same argument holds good for Bangladesh and as well as all of our neighbours.