The Maldives may be a tourists' paradise, with its pristine, deep blue waters, but the strategically-located country straddling important sea lanes is turning out to be a diplomatic nightmare for the Indian government.

Despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visits to countries in the Indian Ocean Region last week, New Delhi is floundering on the question of how to engage with the controversial Maldivian government led by President Yameen Abdul Gayoom. India is merely wringing its hands as Maldives plunges into political turmoil yet again, following the arrest and conviction of former president, Mohamed Nasheed.

That India is in a fix about the Maldives was evident when it was omitted from Modi’s trip, which took him to Mauritius, Seychelles and Sri Lanka, with an eye firmly on China’s expanding strategic footprint in the region. The Maldives’ first democratically elected president, the pro-India Nasheed, was arrested late last month on what is perceived as trumped-up terror charges because he ordered the arrest of a judge.

He was sentenced to 13 years in prison in a trial widely dubbed farcical and one that has drawn criticism from the international community. His appeal against the sentence was turned down by the Maldivian high court earlier this week.

India finds itself in a diplomatic cleft stick in a country it once considered its backyard but where it now finds itself being increasingly marginalised, yielding ground to the Chinese.

Should the Modi government, with its mantra of “neighbourhood first”, intervene in the on-going crisis, as is being suggested by some, including Nasheed’s party, the Maldivian Democratic Party? Or should India confine itself to issuing bland, ineffectual statements expressing concern over the 13-year jail term handed over to Nasheed and seeking a resolution of differences within the constitutional and legal framework of the Maldives?

Over-cautious path

Even as India waffles, questions are being raised by the international community about the legal process under which Nasheed was convicted. The US said in a statement that it was “troubled by reports that the trial was conducted in a manner contrary to Maldivian law and Maldives' international obligations to provide the minimum fair trial guarantees and other protections under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” The EU, too, has held that Nasheed’s conviction “raises questions about due process of law and risks undermining people's trust in the independence of the judiciary”.

To bolster its case for Indian intervention, the MDP has cited the military intervention by the Rajiv Gandhi-led government in 1988 when it came to the rescue of Maldivian strongman and then president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom to prevent a coup. Gayoom’s autocratic rule continued for another two decades until Nasheed came along in 2008 and became the first democratically elected president of the Maldives. Ironically, President Yameen is Gayoom’s half-brother.

While India’s stated policy is not to meddle in a country’s internal affairs, it has not been averse in the past to sending diplomatic emissaries to Maldives, including then foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai in 2012, to mediate in political crises that have engulfed the archipelago.

This time, however, India seems to be treading an over-cautious path, refraining from sending an interlocutor to defuse the political crisis. But it is time for India to jettison this diffident approach, not merely because of its geo-strategic stakes in the archipelago but also to counter the growing Chinese footprint in the Maldives. For India’s bid to retain its influence by pumping hundreds of crores into the Maldives in financial aid and building infrastructure would otherwise remain an exercise in futility.

China in the wings

As it is, the Maldives didn’t think twice before giving the boot to Indian infrastructure company GMR in 2012, abruptly terminating its contract to develop the international airport in the capital Male. The contract was later awarded to the Chinese. India has not only provided a $100 million stand-by credit facility to Maldives for trade but also given it a line of credit worth $40 million for building houses.

It has also helped Maldives set up a hospital, an engineering college and another one on hospitality and tourism. The country is also heavily dependent on India for its regular supply of fruits, vegetables, rice, spices, medicines, eggs, wheat flour, among other things. Bilateral trade as per the 2013-14 figures stood at Rs 700 crores.

Mindful of its own strategic interests and also the growing threat of Islamic radicals in the archipelago, India has also been stepping up its defence and security cooperation with it.  Besides training personnel of the Maldives National Defence Force and Coast Guards, India has also provided two Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopters. It also plans to help Maldives set up a coastal surveillance radar system, like it has done for Mauritius, Seychelles and others.

But Maldives is not averse to playing the China card against India, as it has shown by recently joining the former’s proposed Maritime Silk route. It’s about time the Modi government showed some deft diplomatic manoeuvering to regain lost ground in the archipelago. China, after all, would be more than happy to step into the void.

Parul Chandra is a Delhi-based journalist.