When it comes to foreign policy decisionmaking in a democracy two important quotes come to mind. First is Franklin R. Roosevelt’s conversation in May 1942 with his close advisor, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau. The American president at the time remarked, “You know I am a juggler and I never let my right hand know what my left hand does. I may have one policy for Europe and one diametrically opposite for North and South America. I may be entirely inconsistent and furthermore, I am perfectly willing to mislead and tell untruths if it will help win the war.”
Second is the incumbent president’s candid observation when he was running for the highest office in 2008. When Barack Obama was taking the heat from then Senator Hillary Clinton’s campaign about his lack of national-security experience, he said, “Foreign policy is the area where I am probably most confident that I know more and understand the world better than Senator Clinton.” Meeting world leader is not important, he added. “What I know is the people. I traveled to Pakistan when I was in college. I knew what Sunni and Shia was before I joined the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.”
These two observations are important for any decisionmakers in foreign policy and at least the context of that has been rightly understood by the Indian foreign policy establishment when it comes to dealing with the Maldives.
There was great pressure on the part of the Indian government to intervene in the archipelago recently as President Mohammed Nasheed was feeling the heat of popular unrest in the streets. Nasheed, with his Western upbringing and Oxbridge accent had been touted as South Asia’s Barack Obama and was considered as a friend of India’s. It may have appeared to make sense to save him from being ousted to preserve India’s hegemony in South Asia. The argument is valid superficially for those who advocate a muscular Indian foreign policy without understanding the situation on the ground.
When India intervened in the Maldives in 1988 to save then-President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom through Operation Cactus, the island nation’s leader had been a friend of India’s for nearly a decade. The initiators of the invasion were from Sri Lanka and had close links with the rebel organization there which India supported in a struggle for autonomy with Colombo. Therefore, it made sense for India to save President Gayoom and it proved right when he extended his loyalty for nearly two decades to New Delhi.
The situation at present in the Maldives is an internal occurrence. Nasheed made mistakes which never went well with New Delhi. He invited a “great game” between China and India in Indian Ocean region so that the Maldives could get funding from both great powers. He forgot a basic tenet about foreign policy in South Asia. If you try to be a cut above the rest with your charisma, it won’t wind you any friends in New Delhi.
Small nations have to play second fiddle to India in South Asia and Nasheed failed to remember it. His insistence that regional summits should do more than promote Indo-Pakistani dialogue and his close friendship with the West were not considered well in India for a long time.
Despite repeated appeals from New Delhi to control a radical Muslim incursion in the Southern Maldives, Nasheed didn’t care to provide logistics for Indian intelligence to gather information about the suspected perpetrators of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008.
As he lost popular support at home, New Delhi had only to watch the scenario unfold and throw its support behind Nasheed’s challenger when the time was right.
There are people in India who have argued that it was their nation’s “responsibility to protect” Nasheed but they need to understand that India’s best days are ahead. It has to bid for time as Roosevelt did in 1941 and understand the peculiarities of the situation on the ground, as Obama did about the wars in the Middle East, before intervening. In that light, contrary to popular opinion, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh got it right when he allowed Nasheed to be removed from office.