Sushma Swaraj, who has consciously been keeping a low profile as foreign minister for last over 16 months, has just completed a delicate mission with the conclusion of her two-day visit to Maldives on Sunday.
The Ministry of External Affairs came up with a long-winded 1130-word press statement on Sunday evening but it helps little to avid watchers of strategic and political developments surrounding the Indian Ocean island nation which is India’s neighbour and a Saarc country. The MEA statement can be accessed here.
Here are the hits and misses of Swaraj’s Maldives visit.
The biggest “hit” is that the visit took place at all in the first place. This is because bilateral relations between India and Maldives have been in a state of logjam since Prime Minister Narendra Modi cancelled his scheduled visit to the archipelago six months ago over Maldivian president Abdulla Yameen’s controversial move of victimising his arch political rival and former president Mohammed Nasheed.
Despite strong feelers from the Modi government to take a reasonable and just approach towards Nasheed, he was summarily tried for terror charges and sentenced to 13-year imprisonment just before Modi was to visit Maldives. This raised concerns in New Delhi about yet another small neighbour playing hard ball with India.
Another “hit” is that Sushma Swaraj’s visit, essentially aimed at repairing the damaged bilateral ties, took place in the 50th year of the two countries establishing diplomatic relations. It is another matter that the two countries decided to touch base with each other at high political level through a bilateral mechanism of a joint commission which had been lying moribund for past 15 years.
Yet another “hit” is that the two sides chalked out a roadmap of bilateral cooperation in multiple and diverse areas going up to next year even though it was done through a rather limited mechanism of the joint commission.
As part of this, the following excerpt from the MEA statement is self-explanatory: “EAM emphasised the Government of India policy of ‘Neighbours First’. President Yameen underscored the need to cement India-Maldives relations further. President Yameen and EAM exchanged views on a qualitative enhancement in the multifaceted relationship between India and Maldives and in addressing the common challenges in the Indian Ocean Region. President Yameen conveyed that Maldives would hold an Investment Forum in India in 2016, which is also the ‘Visit Maldives’ year. He reiterated Maldives’ policy of ‘India First’.”
Moreover, it was heartening to see that defence and security matters were included for the first time within the ambit of the India-Maldives Joint Commission.
Now, let us turn to the “misses”.
The biggest “miss” is that in the 1130-word press release, there was not a word on Nasheed and his incarceration. The MEA can technically explain this by saying that the press statement was on the joint commission and obviously Nasheed can’t figure at this forum.
But it doesn’t do justice to India’s global image as the world’s biggest democracy not to talk about the manner in which the Yameen government has thrown democratic conventions to the winds.
To make matters worse,Sushma Swaraj was in Maldives for two days but could not find time to meet the opposition leaders. This is rather peculiar and raises all sorts of doubts and questions.
Moreover, Swaraj met President Yameen and there is nothing on record to suggest that she raised the Nasheed issue with him. It is highly unlikely that she wouldn’t have done that but an on-record mention of that would have assuaged Nasheed’s party, the MDP. After all, Nasheed has been a valued friend of India.
Significantly, just two days before Sushma Swaraj’s arrival in Maldives, the Yameen government had launched a new wave of attacks against a UN panel that had last week ruled the imprisonment of Nasheed as arbitrary. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention had in its report made public on 5 October described Nasheed’s detention as unlawful and called for his immediate release. A detailed account of this development can be read one leading Maldivian media outlet here http://www.haveeru.com.mv/news/62917
This perhaps makes it clear that the Yameen government had drawn its red lines very clearly on the Nasheed case just before Sushma Swaraj’s visit. It shows that a major sticky issue still remains unresolved between India and Maldives.
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