Originally Published 2015-02-24 00:00:00 Published on Feb 24, 2015
Prime Minister Modi is scheduled to visit Maldives in mid-March as part of the first-ever four-nation southern Indian Ocean trip by any Indian leader. The greater success and long-term achievement of the visit, will depend also on how it all goes and goes down well just now.
Maldives at it again: Courts, protests, arrests
Maldives is at it again. With the return of the political tug-of-war between the Government and the Opposition threatening to peak, the police arrested former President Mohammed Nasheed on Sunday in connection with the long-pending 'Judge Abdulla arrest case' and ended up 'manhandling' him outside the court hall a day later, spreading all round concern over the 'recent developments' in the Indian Ocean atolls nation.

"We are concerned at the recent developments in the Maldives, including the arrest and manhandling of former President Nasheed. We urge all concerned to calm the situation and resolve their differences within the constitutional and legal framework of Maldives," Syed Akbaruddin, Official Spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in India, Maldives' closest and largest neighbour, said in a late evening media briefing on Monday.

Akbaruddin's statement came full 24 hours after President Nasheed's arrest in relation to a pending criminal case. In between, a five-member delegation of Nasheed's Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) doing the rounds in Delhi to campaign for support had told the Indian media that no one from the Government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi met them. Even scheduled meetings with officials were cancelled, an MDP team member was quoted as saying.

Incidentally, the Indian reaction followed the court incident in which relatively non-partisan sections of the local media blamed the police for dragging Nasheed into the court after he had fallen when prevented from talking to the waiting newspersons. The police later claimed that Nasheed had wantonly fallen to the floor, but there was no explanation why he should have been dragged in, if the intention was only to stop him from talking to the media.

"A better way would have been to block the media from entry into the court premises or thereabouts, if that was the intention," said a source, adding, "The police had full 24 hours and more to plan that part of it after Sunday's arrest." Needless to point out, the MDP and the rest of the nation's political Opposition in alliance with the party have laid the blame for both the arrest and the court melee at the door-steps of President Abdulla Yameen.

Technically, the arrest flowed from a court order, sought and obtained by the office of the Prosecutor-General," a presidential appointee. It followed apprehensions, based on intelligence reports that Nasheed would 'abscond' without appearing before the court. After a brief production before him on Monday, Criminal Court Judge Abdulla Bari ordered Nasheed's continued detention until the conclusion of the case.

The last time Nasheed was to appear before the original three-judge criminal court Bench hearing the case in 2013, he unilaterally started a stay-in at the Indian High Commission (IHC) in capital Male. The MDP argued that any conviction and sentencing of Nasheed in the pending case could lead to his disqualification from contesting the upcoming presidential polls at the time.

Incidentally, Sunday, February 22, when he was arrested this time marked the completion of two years of his leaving the IHC after a 10-day stay, after talks with High Commission and other Indian officials from Delhi. It's another matter that the Maldivian State did not press ahead with the pending case at the time, facilitating Nasheed's contesting the presidential polls. As may be recalled, he lost the election by a narrow margin, in the second, run-off round. The election itself was marked by one controversy after another, where both the nation's higher Judiciary and independent Election Commission (EC) had to share the blame, concurrently or alternately.

The Indian reaction becomes even more relevant this time as in the past after Nasheed kept telling his listeners nearer home and sections of the Indian media that he apprehended arrest. "India should come and protect me," was his constant, unilateral refrain. A new twist got added after Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon promptly tweeted that her government had "no doubt that India will adhere to the principles of Panchsheel and will not intervene in domestic politics of Maldives".

Wrote it into the script

Possibly egged on the recent 'democracy spring' in neighbouring India and Sri Lanka, President Nasheed may have ended up writing his arrest warrant into the nation's contemporary political script, himself. That was after the MDP central committee calling upon President Yameen to hand over power to one-time ally Jumhoree Party (JP) partner Gasim Ibrahim.

The day the MDP called for President Yameen's exit would be remembered more for the even more unexpected - and yet to be unravelled - fire accident in the Male desalination plant, leading to huge drinking water shortage for a few days. India was the earliest and largest donor of drinking water in Maldives' hour of crisis one more time, after 'Operation Cactus' (1987) military help to abort a coup, and the post-tsunami relief (2004).

Constant rumours on Gasim's imminent arrest - including one along with Nasheed - and certain specific governmental action against his vast business empire, and also engineered defections from his JP had alienated him from President Yameen's ruling coalition led by Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), headed by former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. As may be recalled, President Yameen had counted on Gasim's 25 percent 'transferrable votes' from the first round of the presidential polls, to defeat Nasheed in the second, run-off round.

Independent of their charges against the Government, it is one thing for the Opposition to demand President Yameen's exit and even fresh elections. It's another for the MDP to seek power-transfer to Gasim, involving a complex constitutional process. Keeping the political pressure on, particularly after the JP aligned with it, the MDP has launched a daily night rally in capital Male, which is expected to climax in a massive street-protest on 27 February.

Shifting gears in between, the MDP and Nasheed too have begun demanding early elections to the presidency in the place of power-transfer. Both would have involved President Yameen and his Vice-President Mohamed Jameel Ahmed quitting office, or their impeachment, for the Speaker of the day to act as interim president and conduct fresh polls within 60 days. The power-transfer mode also implied that current Speaker Abdulla Maseeh Mohamed too would have to go. The overall expectation was that Nasheed would return as President in any election, now or later - but there is no knowing why it could not have waited the full term of the current presidency.

Return to/of the past

It is the question that continues to haunt MDP sympathisers, too - why the Opposition could not have waited until President Nasheed's full term had ended in 2013, when fresh elections were anyway due. They still believe in their 'coup' theory, leading to Nasheed's Vice-President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik assuming office in his place on 7 February 2012.

That was after heightened tensions, caused by daily protests by the combined Opposition of the day since 23 December 2011, giving it the name 'December 23 movement'. It was in 'defence of Islam' then. It's in the name of 'defence of the Constitution' now. Barring the lead-players -- the Gayoom-Yameen leadership then, and the Nasheed-MDP now -- the rest of the Opposition cast remains the same.

The religion-centric Adhaalath Party (AP), which was in the forefront of the protests in 2011-12 along with some religious NGOs, has since given up initial reluctance to join the Opposition ranks now. Party leader Sheikh Imran Abdulla has even claimed that the Nasheed arrest was to deflect attention from the earlier arrest and detention of then Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim after he had been sacked and charged with possessing illegal weapons in court cases, and a 'coup', outside.

Nazim was with the anti-Nasheed campaign in 2011, and is now expected to join forces with the rest of the Opposition. Otherwise, he is believed to have nurtured his own presidential ambitions, for 2018 if possible, or 2023, otherwise. Incumbent Home Minister Umar Naseer, an independent presidential candidate in 2008 and a rival to Yameen in the PPM primaries five years hence, is another political leader who has made known his presidential ambitions for 2023.

Courts, protests and arrests have been common to 2011-12, and now in 2015. Nasheed and Nazim may be the arrest victims of the present regime. On the earlier occasion, President Nasheed had directed the nation's armed forces, MNDF, to hold Yameen and Gasim in 'island arrest', and also had Criminal Court Judge Abdulla Mohamed arrested forgotten, past charges -- only a day after the latter had ordered the release of the other two.

It's in relation to the long-pending case on Judge Abdulla's arrest that Nasheed has been arrested now - but none of them seemed to have had any record of possible 'absconding', if one were to go by the ongoing court proceedings. Nasheed is A-1 in the case, reframed under anti-terrorism laws, with a 10-15 year jail term penalty clause. Among others, he is in the good company of Maj-Gen Moosa Ali Jaleel (retd), incumbent Defence Minister, who was the MNDF chief at the time, and now A-2 in the case.

The Government has since clarified that the cases between Ali Jaleel and his predecessor Nazim should not be 'confused'. Jaleel's case, they have argued, was already pending when President Yameen first made him envoy to Pakistan, and later Defence Minister. But Nazim's case emerged when he was still Defence Minister. The argument defies logic, though.

Silencing MDP's claims that Nasheed was not allowed legal assistance immediately after his arrest, the trial court has since given him three days to fix a lawyer of his choice. It's also the case with then Defence Minister Tholath Ibrahim (A-3), who appeared before the court after Nasheed's production on Monday evening. It's unclear if the anti-terrorism case involving the same set of facts and persona would commence from the start, or would be taken up from where the dismantled three-Judge Bench had left it.

Frustrating experience

Taken to its logical conclusion, President Nasheed might stand the possibility of being convicted, sentenced to long-term imprisonment, and consequent disqualification from contesting the elections. In socio-political terms, it could well be an untenable situation, considering that he is acknowledged to be the most popular leader in the country, having polled close to half the votes in the high turn-out presidential polls of 2014. The MDP is also the most popular political party in the country with the highest membership registered with the Election Commission (EC).

Given the MDP cadre history of pro-democracy protests on the streets, any deadlock of the kind could have wide-ranging consequences impacting also on the fragile tourism-driven economy of the nation. It could also mean an increasing number of younger generation voters, hoping for change and change for the better with the advent of democracy, may begin looking elsewhere for solace and solution. Religious extremism of the IS variety can be one - and possibly the most favoured - one, as is already being witnessed. The divided polity then would have only themselves to blame, for their lot, and that of the nation at large.

Going by Maldives' past experience, the nation may be heading for another political deadlock. Any delay or denial of a solution, based exclusively on competing political ambitions and personal egos all over again, could lead to the kind of consequences that cannot be pleasant. In a deeply polarised nation, there are few sane voices that would command respect. Going by the frustrating experience of peace facilitator Ahmed Mujthaba, Moderator of the All-Party Roadmap Talks, flagged by India in a way, after the 2012 crisis, there would be few Maldivians with a command of credibility and common sense, would want to venture out. Yet, there are those whose words carry respect and weight, and they may need to make the first effort at political reconciliation.

That could leave the international community to enter the fray as peace-facilitator. It is most unlikely that the Yameen-Gayoom leadership of the incumbent Government and the ruling PPM would be up to it, unlike predecessor President Waheed. India as the immediate and concerned neighbour may be dissuaded by past experience to get deeply involved, but it cannot ignore the neighbourhood reality either. After a point in 2012, India found itself going round in circles, with the domestic stake-holders neither seriously bothered about an early solution, nor convinced about the options that they had.

India's 'support'

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to visit Maldives in mid-March as part of the first-ever single-stroke four-nation, southern Indian Ocean trip by any Indian leader. The greater success and long-term achievement of the visit, which has the potential to establish India as the initiator of the 'IO-5 arrangement' - the others being Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles and Sri Lanka - will depend also on how it all goes and goes down well just now.

The present crisis in Maldives has the potential to test the Indian leadership presence and quality in the IO-5 Region in particular and larger South Asia otherwise. The post-Cold War interpretation of 'regional leadership' has come to include (selectively, though) assertiveness in the name of ensuring/enforcing fair-play and democratic traditions.

It's seldom acknowledged, particularly by those professing the cause that democratic fair-play too has a slant and meaning in their dictionary, and anything unacceptable to them is un-approvable, overall. India, unlike those egging it on to take that specific role in what it considers the 'traditional sphere of Indian influence', has a love-and-hate relationship with neighbours. It is unlike those (western) nations, who operate far away from their coasts, in alien lands and with alien socio-politico cultures, with disastrous consequences for all concerned. India cannot risk it, now or ever.

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