For all the hosannas that have come Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s way for his vigorous foreign policy approach and neighbourhood outreach, his government is floundering in its efforts to effectively tackle what’s being referred to as the “Maldives mess” in the corridors of South Block.

India’s influence over the geo-strategically located archipelago that straddles important sea lanes in the Indian Ocean, and where China has made deep strategic inroads, has waned considerably despite the Modi mantra of “Neighbourhood First”.

Ironically, ties between India and Maldives seem at their lowest ebb this year, when the two countries are marking five decades of the establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations.

Strategic backyard

India, which looks at the Indian Ocean as its strategic backyard, has in recent months been reduced to the role of a silent spectator as the archipelago remains roiled by incessant political turmoil and its nascent democracy under threat.

This has understandably caused New Delhi both anxiety and alarm, yet it has been able to do precious little to engage meaningfully with the President Abdulla Yameen-led government in Maldives. Adding to India’s worries is the pro-China tilt of Yameen, who belongs to the Progressive Party of Maldives.

Voicing India’s concerns, a senior diplomat said, “If we are not careful, Maldives could well be taken over by the Chinese. They’re already doing it in the Pacific. As the next-door neighbour, we need to work with the Yameen government closely. And even arm-twist it, if necessary.”

Fears over the expanding Chinese footprint in Maldives are not unfounded. As recently as July, the swift passage of a new law by the People’s Majlis in Maldives allowing foreign ownership of land in the archipelago set alarm bells ringing in New Delhi.

This constitutional amendment is likely to further facilitate China’s participation in major infrastructure projects in the island nation, and even help it set up a military base on the chain of 26 atolls. While Beijing said such speculation about a military base was “totally baseless”, the possibility of it building one in the near future cannot be ruled out.

Scrambling to make peace

The passage of the new law sent Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar scrambling to Male as part of his “SAARC Yatra” in early August. Till then, Maldives had been given the go-by by the foreign secretary who had visited the remaining six SAARC nations earlier in the year.

The Yameen government, on its part, sought to allay New Delhi’s fears, maintaining that the archipelago would remain a demilitarised zone. It even dispatched its Foreign Secretary Ali Naseer Mohamed to Delhi in the second week of August to convey this to the Indian government.

Within days of Mohamed’s visit, the External Affairs Ministry quietly announced that its High Commissioner in Maldives, Rajeev Shahare, would be moving as India’s envoy to Denmark.

External Affairs Ministry sources say Shahare had “fallen out of favour” with the Yameen government., the online English edition of a Maldivian daily, reported that the Yameen government had “issues” with the Indian envoy and therefore sought a replacement. New Delhi is yet to announce a new name for the crucial and challenging posting.

Curiously, New Delhi has also chosen to maintain a studied diplomatic silence on the manner in which Mohammed Nasheed – he was the country’s first democratically-elected president and was ousted under controversial circumstances in February 2012 – was moved back to prison on August 23 after being kept under house arrest for a month.

Nasheed, who leads the Maldivian Democratic Party, was handed out a 13-year prison term in March this year after he was convicted of terrorism in a trial that was widely perceived as being politically motivated. Nasheed’s arrest had led India to call off Modi’s proposed visit to Maldives as part of his “Indian Ocean Yatra” in March.

Silence on Nasheed

The US and UK have expressed concern at Nasheed’s return to prison on August 23. The US State Department said it was “disturbed” at the development and urged the Maldivian government to release Nasheed.

Seeking an end to “politically motivated trials” in the island nation, the US said Maldives must take “steps to restore confidence in its commitment to democracy and the rule of law, including judicial independence and to ensure fundamental rights are respected”.

UK Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire, too, sought the release of all political prisoners in Maldives, including Nasheed, “to help re-establish confidence in democracy in the Maldives”.

New Delhi, however, has remained mum. India, incidentally, has provided $100 million of stand-by credit facility to Maldives, has built a hospital and engineering college, among other things. The archipelago is also dependent on India to meet its needs for essential food items like rice, sugar, potatoes, onions, fruits, eggs.

But the huge amount of money India continues to pour into Maldives by virtue of being “a leading development partner” does not seem to have helped its case.

India would perhaps not like to be seen identifying too closely with Nasheed’s cause, having burnt its fingers earlier when it was seen as backing him. But this seemingly hands-off policy hasn’t worked in New Delhi’s favour either, with Male and Beijing merrily continuing with their tango.