With the Chinese by his side backing him to the hilt, Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen has been cocking a snook at India which was its most trusted friend before he came on the political scene and browbeating his detractors within the country in the most bizarre and brazen manner. Court verdicts are increasingly being tailored to harass his political opponents and suit him.
The latest case in point is the verdict of a court convicting the country’s former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who is 80 years of age, and the sitting chief justice of the apex court, Abdulla Saeed, for obstruction of justice and sentencing them to 19 months in prison.
Yameen’s motivation is to tighten his grip on power ahead of the presidential elections in September in which he is seeking to return for a second five-year term. By hook or by crook, Yameen wants to keep the presidential ‘gaddi.’ It suits the Chinese to let him do what he wants so long as he remains subservient to them and serves their strategic maritime and other interests.
Strangely, Gayoom, who is Yameen’s half-brother, Abdulla Saeed, and another Supreme Court judge Ali Hameed were sentenced for refusing to hand over their mobile phones for a police investigation. This is the level to which Yameen has gone in subverting democracy. India’s entreaties to respect the democratic ethos has fallen on deaf ears as Yameen cold-shoulders and snubs India repeatedly.
This is a challenge to India’s perceived status as a regional power but at one stage recently when a former president who has been consistently well disposed towards India, Mohamed Nasheed, who was jailed by Yameen and is now fighting a battle against him from abroad beckoned India to send troops to throw out Yameen, China warned New Delhi that it would not tolerate it.
Maldives under Yameen had also pooh-poohed India’s invitation to send its ships with crew for some naval exercises in which six other nations were participating last year.
Soon after he came to power in 2012, virtually browbeating the country’s first democratically-elected president Nasheed to quit office and subsequently having him convicted and jailed, Yameen had cancelled an Indian firm’s contract for developing the country’s airport and handed the contract to a Chinese company three years later.
Indeed, Maldives undertook measures at a surreptitious pace and through constitutional amendments to accommodate Chinese interests by signing a Free Trade Agreement with China across a range of sectors; then joining the bandwagon of China’s Belt and Road Initiative; and changing the law to allow Chinese ownership of Maldivian islands. Maldives has also been taking a large amount of debt from Beijing for infrastructure projects of bridges, housing, among others and could fall into a debt trap.
Over time, Yameen has been getting more and more brazen and bold against India and the Modi government has been left groping what to do.
To India’s discomfiture, the US, which under Barack Obama drew the line for Maldives and the Chinese and supported India’s stand on Maldivian affairs, is under Donald Trump oblivious of democracy being trampled upon by Yameen. A small but strategically-placed country like Maldives is indeed of no consequence for Trump with his policy of ‘America first’ being carried too far.
Earlier this year, Yameen imposed a state of emergency and when India advised him to lift it, he extended it by 15 days, once again showing he does not care for what India says or feels. Not only has Yameen caved in wholly to China’s whims, he has also befriended Saudi Arabia which is exporting its brand of Wahabism into the country, thereby radicalising the country which has had a tradition of liberalism.
Some experts in the field believe that India must shift its national interest from focusing on immediate leadership change in the Maldives to restoring the pre-2012 democratic order. This they say will open up a new set of opportunities for New Delhi. But with Yameen’s intoxication with the Chinese cocktail, how effective that would be is anybody’s guess.