The unedifying image of former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed  being dragged by local police to a courthouse in  Male on Sunday draws attention to the current  political crisis that has engulfed the island nation. India has expressed its  concern over the “arrest and manhandling” of  Nasheed  and  urged all sides to  “calm the situation and resolve their differences within the constitutional and legal framework of the Maldives.”

While  there has been no formal  statement, the  visit of  Prime Minister Modi  to the island nation scheduled for mid March appears to be  in some  doubt and this is reflective of  Indian discomfiture over the tangled  political developments in  Maldives.

The current Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom is the brother of the former  strongman President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who ruled  Maldives  with an iron-hand for almost three decades (1978 – 2008)  till he was ousted  in  November  2008  by  Nasheed. However  the latter had a turbulent  stint as the President and  his ambitious agenda to modernize the domestic economy and promote tourism were resisted both by the earlier regime and the conservative Islamic constituency.  Consequently  mass protests in the small nation (population 400,000) and some imprudent decisions taken by  President Nasheed, including the controversial arrest of the  Chief  Justice  in January 2012, led to the forced  resignation of  Nasheed in February 2012.  This happened a few months after the SAARC Summit held in the Maldives in November 2011.

Domestic challenges

Since then the former president has been facing  severe  domestic political  challenges so much so that a year later  in February 2013,   Nasheed sought asylum in the Indian mission in Male fearing for his personal safety.  At the time New Delhi, it appears ,was caught by surprise at the roller-coaster turn of events  and was reluctant to get directly involved in the internal affairs of the island state.

Over the last three years,  the intense domestic political contest in the Maldives enabled the return of the Gayoom faction  which has now pressed terrorism charges against Nasheed. However  his supporters see this as a move by the current  dispensation to prevent  Nasheed from  returning to power through the ballot-box  and  Delhi will have to calibrate its  politico-diplomatic approach to respond to the current crisis.

The  Nasheed  arrest  is the first regional diplomatic challenge to the Modi government  and the exchange of statements is instructive. While India has expressed "concern",  the Maldives Foreign Minister  Dunya  Maumoon observed in an import laden statement that her  government had “no doubt  that India will adhere  to the principle of Panchsheel and will not intervene in the domestic politics of Maldives.”

India has been a friend-in-need for the Maldives on more than one occasion and in November 1988, with PM Rajiv Gandhi  in South Block, the Indian military deftly foiled a  mercenary coup  attempt against the then President Gayoom. The international community applauded the swift Indian response and this action also burnished  Delhi’s regional profile. Later in December 2004 when the deadly tsunami ravaged  many parts of  the Indian Ocean littoral –the Maldives with its  distinctive low sea-level topography  was wrecked. Again, the  Indian military  rose to the occasion and provided  much needed succour.

China card

Hence  there is a natural reservoir of goodwill towards India but in recent years the  factional politics of the island state have introduced the China card to balance  what is perceived as an overwhelming tilt towards  Delhi. Concurrently the more  conservative  and pro-wahabi/salafi  Islamic  constituency has also increased its politico-religious influence and latest reports refer to the presence of  IS (Islamic State )  and al-Qaeda sympathizers in the Maldives.

India has adopted a very cautious and judicious stand in not getting sucked into the domestic politics of the Maldives. The strategic location of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean accord it a geographical relevance that is of special salience to China. The ambitious new maritime silk route unveiled by President Xi Jinping  has been welcomed by the current leadership in  Male and  this is a familiar pattern for Delhi – that of the smaller SAARC nations  seeking to maximize their leverage with both Asian giants.

Nurturing democratic regimes in the neighbourhood is a desirable objective for India but the policy challenge is to find the appropriate balance in approach. The perspicacity of the  Modi government  will be on test.