Why India Needs the Neighbourhood

In what must be a unique phenomenon for any country, Maldives periodically chooses between two of the largest contestants on earth in a national election. The individual candidates may go by any other name but beyond the veneer, the influencer emerges from among the behemoths: India or China. Over successive polls, power has changed hands with such metronomic fidelity that the losing candidate bides time to turn the tables by the next election.When President Mohammed Muizzu seized power in Male, shocking Ibrahim Solih, it was known that the incumbent would lean towards China. With his ‘India Out’ election campaign, Muizzu hoped to get closer to China.In Muizzu’s early days, with Beijing promising increased infra investments, there was an eagerness to cosy up. This wasn’t unusual since past Male governments had sided with either of the two powers. But this time, a fine balance was sacrificed in favour of brazenness and antipathy towards an old friend. Maldives’ Deputy ministers Malsha Shareef, Mariyam Shiuna and Abdulla Mahzoom Majid threw the gauntlet by ridiculing India’s Prime Minister in an unacceptable manner and rousing anti-India sentiments. The improper comments upset Indian citizens whose anger virtually scorched the digital space. The Maldives government acted in time and suspended the deputy ministers but the damage had been done. The fact that junior ministers could actually whip up a frenzy and had the agency to drive a wedge in the India-Maldives equation was worrisome. Conversely, it also meant that any traveling lowball could catch India’s heels. Such is the vulnerability. Does a collective national outburst to any comments, even excessive ones, make India too predictable? Does it hurt India’s journey to becoming a bigger force in the region?India-China: Surrogate RivalryThe rivalry in the region between India and China has turned into a surrogate one. The scrimmage in the Himalayas is likely to be of contained tactical importance, since neither can make headway in the mountains. However, when dimensions of conflict expand to include the oceans and states that dot them, it gives rise to the real risk of a Chinese string of pearls surrounding India through satellite states and naval bases across littoral South Asia. That is where emotional outbursts to every issue can become self-goals for India.On the other hand, Chinese positions have stayed the course. China’s thinking on Maldives began even before Xi Jinping arrived on the scene. Until 2002, there was no worthwhile trade between them but in the next decade, trade increased from $3 million to over $60 million. In the decade that followed, trade volumes crossed $500 million. China has been working hard in these countries to build out infrastructure which they can later leverage. The measure of the Chinese footprint in the country can be gauged by the fact that China’s EXIM Bank funded the construction of the Sinamale bridge connection to Male and the modernisation of the Velana International Airport in Male alongside investments in agriculture.Lt Gen Rakesh Sharma, Distinguished Fellow at VIF, believes that, unlike China’s deep pockets for investment, India is known to build relationships via people and essential services such as medical tourism and education. Though he asserts that the initial anguish against the remarks of the Maldivian ministers was normal, he cautions about going on an overdrive of reactions. A senior diplomat was heard on television sermonising neighbouring countries to ‘obey red lines’. “The strength of diplomacy is to deal with inimical governments,” counters Lt Gen Sharma. In support, he points out recent examples of India’s current dealings with the Taliban and in the past with Pakistani governments, where channels were deftly used.An impression has gained ground in India that any hostile issue can be whipped up into a public interest phenomenon by crowding out unfavourable points of view using sheer numbers on social media. Except that those jumping on this bandwagon have little or no understanding of how international affairs and strategic choices work. The theatrics of tourism companies, travel operators and other celebrities falling over themselves by cancelling tours to prove their loyalty when the government had refrained from indulging in mudslinging was a case of unsought genuflection by those whose decisions were skewed by an outburst of emotions driving a boycott-Maldives campaign.Take the case of a tourist company promising to transform Lakshadweep into Maldives. Any comparison of infrastructure and potential between Maldives and Lakshadweep is untenable. To claim that Lakshadweep, with its vulnerable ecosystem and a mere 36 islands, can be transformed into a tourist paradise, outstripping Maldives with over 1100 islands (of which 187 are inhabited) is outrageous and fanciful.According to Maldives’ Ministry of Tourism, the Chinese didn’t comprise the top 10 list of tourists in January 2023 while Indian tourists were the second highest contributor. However, by the end of 2023, surges of Chinese tourists catapulted the country to the third spot. Given the rapid change in tourist demographics, Muizzu’s plea to China for tourists will increase Chinese footprint in the islands and could challenge India’s influence in future.Friendly NeighboursDuring Covid, Maldives was the only nation accessible to Indians without a visa. Previously, Sri Lanka went through a cycle of pro-China and pro-India periods. India’s relations with Nepal hit a roller coaster. After his China visit, Muizzu spat out, “We may be small, but that doesn’t give you the licence to bully us.”Muizzu knows his cards well, having scrapped the India-Maldives hydrography agreement. This makes way for a Chinese research ship to dock in Male in February, despite India’s concerns over Chinese vessels in the Indian Ocean. India has managed to turn things around in Sri Lanka earlier. Given its location, size and lack of democracy, Maldives is a more vulnerable state. Lt Gen Sharma believes that India needs to work with neighbours if it aspires to be a force to reckon with in the global south. In an age of Beijing’s malevolent machinations, a powerful India that treats neighbours as equals is seen as a benevolent and influential state that stands to gain greater acceptability. Like accountability in a war stops at the general’s door, the buck in political tussles must stop at the gates of diplomacy.The writer is the author of ‘Watershed 1967’ and ‘Camouflaged: Forgotten Stories From Battlefields’. Tweets @iProbal.



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