Originally Published 2013-12-30 12:35:09 Published on Dec 30, 2013
India being the closest neighbour with high stakes in the stability of Maldives, President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom's India visit from January 1 to 4 would be keenly watched, nearer home in the two countries, and afar.
As Maldives President comes calling....
" It has been a mixed bag for President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, as he prepares for his maiden overseas visit after assuming office, to India. The India visit is to be followed by one to the other neighbour, Sri Lanka, and possibly to Japan.

Yameen would be the first Maldivian President to visit Japan, which has been taking an off-again, on-again interest in India and its Indian Ocean neighbourhood. Such interest is believed to be waxing and waning, depending upon the concurrent state of Japan's economy, the tool that the nation has at its disposal for diplomatic initiatives in the region and beyond.

Ahead of assuming office, President Yameen had his election becoming the centre of a series of domestic controversies. The oncoming of the election was expected to resolve many of the controversies leading up to it, after the 'change of government' in February 2012. Instead, the presidential polls of September 2013 caught mired in more and unimaginable controversies of their own.

Included in the long list was the inevitable extension of the presidential poll and the elected person (Yameen in this case) assuming office, after the constitutionally-mandated deadline had elapsed. That there was judicial protection for the same, the Supreme Court having caused those delays, provided the required constitutional cover and consequent legitimacy to the entire process.

Credit should go to President Yameen for declaring publicly after his election that he would always remember that close to half the nation's voters had voted against him, and that he would prove that he was their President, as well. He also promised not to be vindictive and indicated a desire to have an 'inclusive' polity through a consensus process, which alone would do the nation good, now and later.

The Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), whose candidate, former President Mohammed Nasheed, had lost the polls narrowly, reacted positively. Under the prevailing circumstances, the party's conditional offer of support to the multi-party alliance Government (if it followed the MDP's policies) was the best that could have been expected. The MDP has stuck to its commitment. However, over time, both sides would have to revisit their current positions to see what would make for 'national consensus' that had eluded the first five years of the democratisation process in the country.

The MDP majority in the 77-seat Parliament has thus passed the maiden budget of the new Government, due anyway for fiscal 2014 commencing on 1 January, after mutually-accepted and seldom contested amendments were cleared at the committee stage. However, Parliament has denied confirmation to eight of President Yameen's 15 Cabinet nominees. The list of denials included Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim and Home Minister Umar Naseer.

All but Umar Naseer were Cabinet Ministers under predecessor President, Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik, whose legitimacy the MDP had contested following the 'power-transfer' of February 2012. Like the other seven, Umar Naseer was in the forefront of anti-Nasheed protests at the height of the combined Opposition demand for the President's resignation. He had contested against Yameen for their People's Party of Maldives (PPM) elections for presidential nomination, and later went to the court contesting the legitimacy of the internal polls.

Umar's choice thus for the powerful Home Minister's post was thus different from President Yameen accommodating Gasim Ibrahim's JP in his Government. The latter process involved Gasim committing his party to second-round poll-backing for Yameen. The two sides had also negotiated a post-poll arrangement ahead of the second-round polls. To the extent the two sides are committed to contesting the 17 January local council polls and the all-important 22 March parliamentary elections together, President Yameen has displayed a certain level of accommodation.

Yet, President Yameen would be under as much pressure, if not more, from his allies in the weeks and months to come, at times more than that from the legitimate Opposition. That however has been the fate of all coalition governments the world over. In this, President Yameen would also be seeking to consolidate his position within the home-party, where half-brother and former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom has ruled the roost since inception. How the internal adjustments and re-adjustments within the PPM take place, if at all, and when - before or after the parliamentary polls, formally or quietly - would also be keenly watched.

The MDP is piqued at the pending court cases against its leaders and cadres. Topping the list of course is the criminal case against former President Nasheed, among others, in the 'Judge Abdulla abduction case'. Ahead of the presidential polls, Nasheed had promised to face trial post-poll, if allowed to participate in an 'inclusive elections' as India and the rest of the international community described it. Senior party leaders like veteran Ibrahim Hussain Zaki and a couple of MDP MPs are similarly facing trial on charges of consuming alcohol in an island-resort site licensed to one of them.

The MDP also alleges that criminal cases have been filed against 700 or more cadres for participation in anti-Waheed protests and the like. Mutual political accommodation and the building up of a 'national consensus' would require the turbulent past is left behind along with its memories, without a trail. It is unclear if the courts would be pleased to any Government initiative for the withdrawal of the pending cases, or any legislative initiative alone would do the trick.

For the Government to agree to any such initiative, and carry it through the courts, too, the MDP too may have to demonstrate flexibility and accommodation in matters that may have already become a matter of concern for the Yameen presidency. Parliamentary confirmation for the Cabinet ministers may be (only) one of them. If one is moralistic, then the other would become legalistic. That is what politics is all about.

After all, the MDP's reservations to the continuance of some Cabinet Ministers owe not to their conduct in office but to the controversial and at times confusing past of the nation's democracy. If one is 'political vendetta', the other too is. The question is who blinks first, how, when and why. But blink, they would have to if they have to keep up the post-poll promise to the nation that they would behave responsibly and with a sense of mutual accommodation.

Under the scanner

India being the closest neighbour with high stakes in the stability of Maldives, President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom's India visit (1-4 January 2014) would be keenly watched, nearer home in the two countries, and afar. Extra-regional powers like the US, China and the European Union (EU), not to leave out the UK, of which Maldives was a 'Protectorate' until Independence in 1965, have a keen interest in the internal affairs of the archipelago-nation.

The purported primary concern of these nations is political stability in the country, as Maldives has been a tour-destination for their nationals. But that is only a part. All nations of the world doing business in and through the abutting Indian Ocean sea-lanes have an abiding geo-strategic interest in Maldives - and also Sri Lanka - in larger India's immediate southern flank. Not all of them have chosen to hide their ambitions, which some call 'concerns', either.

Earlier, before the presidential polls, Yameen, as a candidate, had rushed to New Delhi for a quick interaction with the Indian leadership, starting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, like MDP's Nasheed. Jumhooree Party leader Gasim Ibrahim, who scored 24 percent votes in the first round and could effortlessly 'transfer' much of it to Yameen in the decisive second round, is on the presidential entourage this time. Gasim could not, or did not, make it to Delhi when invited ahead of the polls.

The visible bonhomie notwithstanding, bilateral relations between the two Indian Ocean countries had rather turned cold during the tenure of President Waheed, whatever the reason and justification. At the core of the contention was the 'GMR issue', or was seen to be so. With the Waheed Government cancelling the multi-billion dollar construction-cum-concession contract for the Male airport to the Indian infrastructure major, the matter is now before an international arbitrator in Singapore, for fixing the moneys due to the GMR group.

GMR is not about an one-off affair. Instead, it is about how Indian investors, going beyond the western private sector participation almost exclusively in tourism resort business, see the GMR issue in the context of protection for their investments and participation in Maldivian enterprises. Independent of the Indian Government's interest in helping Maldives build a better model for public-private participation in non-tourism sector with massive FDI inflows, the GMR contract was caught in a whole pile of legal, political and financial issues, which was of no concern to New Delhi.

However, New Delhi's help is now required to re-build confidence in the Indian investor, just as it is required for 'budgetary support' and other economic assistance, without which Maldives would continue to remain in the red, despite high earnings for the nation's private sector from tourism earnings. The latter is a grey area, which no Maldivian Government in the foreseeable future is expected to address, squarely.

Otherwise on the economic front, barring the GMR issue, the Yameen Government and the MDP Opposition seem to be on the same page. Apart from the fact that Maldivians would not relish the MDP stalling the budget in Parliament, it was also a near-unanimity on economic policy among nation's most political parties that also helped the Budget pass the Majlis, or Parliament.

The presidential visit will also involve discussions with the Indian leadership of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on a whole range of issues, including the 'visa issue', which had become a problem around the time of the 'GMR row', but entirely for a different and justifiable reason. That is being sorted out. So should be the Maldivian request for recommencing export of sand and aggregates, required for all construction work in a booming economy.

Along with Sri Lanka, India and Maldives have signed a trilateral maritime security cooperation agreement. It has the potential to be expanded in every which way. Already, there are reports about the three countries wanting to bring Seychelles and Mauritius, further down in the Indian Ocean periphery of India's southern coastline, on board. The existing agreement also has the potential to evolve into a multi-lateral defence cooperation agreement in its time, with the rest of the participating nations acknowledging India's primacy in extending and ensuring their maritime security, sovereignty and territorial integrity. Though complex and long-winded, the processes would have to be flagged now and again, if there has to be a fuller understanding on all sides.

A presidential visit is one such occasion for mutual discussions, concerns and consent, as the situation demands.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter)

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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