Democracy in Maldives good news for India, say experts

October 30th, 2008 - 5:33 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, Oct 30 (IANS) The first democratic government in the Maldives in three decades has brought much cheer to the Indian establishment as it will make it easier for New Delhi to deal with a democratic regime instead of a one-man dictatorship in the neighbourhood, experts said Thursday. “It liberates India from a lot of past embarrassment of supporting a non-democratic regime,” Major General (retired) Ashok Mehta, an expert who has closely followed developments in the Maldives, told IANS a day after President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was defeated by Mohamed Nasheed in the Maldives’ first multi-party elections.

“India should be happy that one more country in the region has become a democracy,” Mehta said.

Agreed K. Subrahmanyam, an eminent strategic expert: “It’s definitely good news for India to have a Muslim country in the neighbourhood which is a democracy.”

Not that India has made democracy a prerequisite for good relations with its neighbours, especially when it’s a strategically important country, 800 km away from India’s southern tip and one where China is trying to make inroads.

In fact, India enjoyed excellent bilateral relations with the Maldives for the three decades when Gayoom ruled that country - a period that saw the dramatic transformation of the idyllic island nation into a luxury holiday destination, bringing prosperity on one hand but also bringing curbs on political liberties in its wake.

In an assertion of its security interests in the Maldives, the then Rajiv Gandhi government sent troops to beat off Sri Lankan mercenaries who tried to oust Gayoom in a failed coup in 1988.

But India’s engagement with the Maldives in the Gayoom era was driven purely by pragmatism and a sense of responsibility for the country. With nearly 1,200 islands, populated by 370,000 people, it is the smallest country in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

The beginning of the “new era of democracy,” as Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in his congratulatory message Wednesday night to President-elect Nasheed, therefore, promises to energise traditional ties and will build upon huge reserves of goodwill for India in that country.

Capturing the new mood of optimism about the new government in Male, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee said India was “confident” that the new democratically elected government will “build on the close and multi-faceted engagement between the two countries”.

Some Maldives-watchers have pointed out China’s efforts to increase its presence in the Maldives that may pose a threat to India’s interests. But unlike repeatedly expressed fears in India over the new Maoist regime’s pro-China tilt, there are no such anxieties haunting India about the Maldives turning into a hub of great game in the Indian Ocean region.

China has provided money for developmental projects in the Maldives and off and on there are reports about China entering into a deal to build a naval base in one of the Maldives islands - reports which have been vehemently denied by Gayoom himself.

There is not much for India to worry here, says Mehta.

“A small country such as the Maldives knows it can’t mess around with India. It’s too dependant on India for security,” said Mehta.

“Free and fair elections could not have happened without a nod and nudge from India, the US and global community. There will be a continuity in India’s relations with the Maldives,” said Subrahmanyam while ruling out India-China rivalry in the country.

India provides training to the Maldives’ defence personnel and hardware for its military. India recently presented INS Tillanchang, a fast attack craft that is designed for quick and covert operations against smugglers, gunrunners and terrorists.

Moreover, Indians are the largest expatriate community in the Maldives with a population of 19,430 that forms an enduring human bridge between the two countries.

A large number of Maldives diplomats have been trained in India, said Ahmed Shaheed, former foreign minister of Maldives. India was also quick to help when the 2004 tsunami struck the Maldives, he pointed out.

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