PRESIDENT Biden was assiduously cultivating leaders of Pacific Island nations the other day when in the distant Maldives archipelago in the Indian Ocean an electoral run-off was poised to evict a friendly head of state.
The White House meeting underscored how any piece of land along the sea lanes plied by China or Russia were coveted as anchor to upstage strategic rivals. The Maldives was under British administration when an Italian ship was sunk off its coast during World War II. It faded from importance with the arrival of the Diego Garcia base loaned by Britain to the US in the Indian Ocean, not far from the Maldives, from where the Iraq invasion was carried out.
Mr Biden’s meeting with Pacific islanders was avowedly a response to China’s inroads into the oceanic region where Beijing has struck up a handy partnership with a key island state. In this vein, one can see that a setback may have occurred for Mr Biden when Mohamed Muizzu won the Maldives race.
However, it is difficult to see how India stood to lose from the election of a leader described curiously in Indian and Western press as an anti-India and pro-China man.
If Muizzu and his party proclaim themselves to be anti-Indian yet not as openly anti-West, there is something there for Indian diplomats to ponder. Is the Maldives alone in being anti-India (and pro-China) in South Asia, if at all it is that? Or is it the same rubbish at work whereby entire communities at home are damned by India’s state-backed TV channels with hostile propaganda, simply because some Sikhs or Muslims, or any other, may not see eye to eye with an increasingly delinquent state.
Leave alone the Maldives. What about Sri Lanka where China has a strong presence? Or Bangladesh where Beijing has traditionally had a key presence despite India’s seminal role in the creation of the nation in 1971? Why is predominantly Hindu Nepal looking such a piece of heavy weather for Indian diplomacy?
Even Bhutan, which has a treaty that tethers it to India in crucial ways, is spending extensive time in quiet confabulations with China. We need not even get to Pakistan and Afghanistan from the set of countries that were once eyeing at least a courteous relationship with India under the canopy of Saarc, the South Asian club that India under Prime Minister Modi, for reasons best known to him, has throttled into near extinction.
In its essence, Mr Muizzu’s election needn’t be a threat to India or a favour to China. It may be just a rap on the knuckles for diplomatic sullenness at the most. As such, the entire India-China-Maldives discourse seems like a hangover from the bloc days of the Cold War. The truth lies elsewhere.
The Indian middle class has nurtured dreams of a Mitty-esque conquest of the world, a self-congratulatory arrival of the Vishwaguru, the spiritual and temporal leader of the world. In this dream sequence, they have been obsessively busy courting the global stage in the footsteps of the prime minister. Many went berserk with the G20 summit Mr Modi hosted recently.
The rumblings waiting to erupt in Canada were ignored and dismissed curtly. This was also the time when the UK was suddenly distancing itself from its own duplicity in buying refined oil products from India whose source was located in Russia. Then Australia admonished Hindutva activists over a vandalised Hindu temple falsely blamed on the Sikh diaspora. All in all, not great tidings for the self-proclaimed Vishwaguru.
If Muizzu and his party proclaim themselves to be anti-Indian yet not as openly anti-West, there is something for Indian diplomats to ponder.
Contrast the absence of marked diplomatic finesse of recent days with approaches signalled by previous prime ministers. Indira Gandhi hosted 130 non-aligned movement leaders in 1983, followed by the mega Commonwealth summit in Goa. At the NAM summit in Fidel Castro’s company, she led a united appeal for denuclearisation of the Indian Ocean while the summit also called on the US to vacate the Diego Garcia base.
Mr Modi has flipped that policy, allowing India to be sucked into a self-defeating anti-China ambit that serves Western interests without necessarily addressing New Delhi’s border issues with China, if they ever could.
An approach to pragmatic diplomacy was shown by Inder Gujral shortly after the end of the Cold War. He directed the Indian intelligence apparatus to suspend their aggressive presence in countries in India’s neighbourhood, particularly so in Pakistan. He met Nawaz Sharif in Male during the 1997 Saarc summit and rekindled reconciliation with Islamabad as part of a foreign policy structured in concentric circles, giving priority to relationships closer home. That line was pursued by Manmohan Singh.
Despite the terror unleashed in Mumbai in November 2008 with an unspeakable massacre of civilians by armed killers from across the border, Singh preferred a rapprochement with Islamabad at Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt. He was like Arjun, the hero of Mahabharat who was famously riveted to the eye of the fish to shoot the arrow at. In Singh’s case, the eye was the soaring free market economy he had initiated.
There are rare occasions when their morality is tested for nations flaunting democratic and liberal credentials. One such occasion came in the Maldives at a regional summit when member states showcased their respective cultures and heritage.
It was around then that Pakistan, under Asif Ali Zardari’s presidency, if I remember right, set up an exhibition in Male, claiming Pakistan’s Buddhist legacy as a major component of its national identity. This was no small departure from the puritan path the Zia regime had prescribed for cultural preferences. Muslim zealots from Male ransacked the exhibition as un-Islamic.
It was just the time for India to speak up for Pakistan. One can’t remember a squeak from New Delhi. The fault, therefore, is not in the stars. Or, as Samuel Beckett says, it doesn’t help to blame the boots for the faults of the feet.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, October 3rd, 2023