Nov 22, 2008

World - What lies ahead in the Maldives ?

N. Sathiya Moorthy

Mohammed Nasheed’s election has ushered in multi-party democracy in the Indian Ocean atolls-nation, accustomed to the autocracy of the predecessor President, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

In his 40s, he is one of the youngest elected heads of state or government in the world. People, particularly the younger generation, heeded his call to ‘vote for change,’ and his boyish grin and ‘outsider image’ did the rest. A failing economy is only one of the problems that he has inherited — and he cannot fail his constituency, his nation.

Whatever applies to U.S. President-elect Barack Obama applies equally, if not more, to the 41-year-old Maldivian President, Mohammed Nasheed. Popularly known as Anni, the marine graduate from the U.K. was ahead of his time. Amnesty International hailed him as a ‘Prisoner of Conscience.’ His election has ushered in multi-party democracy in the Indian Ocean atolls-nation, accustomed to the autocracy of the predecessor President, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

Credit should go to Mr. Gayoom for having facilitated democratic reforms, however halting and unwilling these might have been. His 30-year rule witnessed six farcical elections, based on a one-party, one-candidate norm, after the Maldives shook off the vestiges of an elected sultanate to evolve into a ‘modern state’ under his deposed predecessor, Ibrahim Nasir. Building on Mr. Nasir’s initiatives, Mr. Gayoom made resort-tourism and fishing the mainstay of the economy, and modern education, up to A-level, that of the exclusive Sunni-Islamic society.

Mr. Gayoom’s inability to grow with the nation and meet the growing aspirations of the new generation contributed to his alienation. This took the form of pro-democracy protests. Absolute power corrupted absolutely, and there were recurring complaints of large-scale nepotism and financial irregularities. Mr. Gayoom could not retain his friends, either. Barring Mr. Nasheed, most leaders of the political opposition, to whichever party they belonged, had been in the Gayoom regime at some point. Like the voters, they too saw a ‘dynastic succession’ plan that involved Mr. Gayoom’s brother Yamin on the one hand and daughter Dhuniya Maumoon, supposedly on the other.

Mr. Nasheed and friends might have arrived too early for a Maldives that did not bother much when they were repeatedly jailed or banished from the country. Their persistence and perseverance paid off when Mr. Gayoom, bowing also to international opinion, could not but legitimise political activity three years ago. The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), of which Mr. Nasheed was co-founder, was the first to register itself in 2005.

‘Honour and dignity’

As President-elect, Mr. Nasheed began well by declaring that there would be no witch-hunting. Mr. Gayoom had a political role to play in the Maldives, and would be allowed to stay in the country with ‘honour and dignity,’ Mr. Nasheed declared in his acceptance speech. It was an obvious reference to the circumstances in which Mr. Gayoom’s predecessor, Mr. Nasir, migrated to Singapore after being overthrown in 1978. Mr. Nasheed has also promised to move Parliament to grant pension and privileges to the outgoing President. Conceding defeat, Mr. Gayoom promised a smooth transition and has ensured as much.

Yet, as an Executive President with limited experience in electoral politics and none in political administration, Mr. Nasheed has his task cut out. Both the first round of polling in which he got around 25 per cent of the popular vote and the run-off, where his tally was 55 per cent, were Gayoom-centric. As President, Mr. Nasheed has to carry the loose coalition of parties that backed him either in the first-round polling or the run-off, beyond the reasonably smooth Ministry-formation, through the February elections to the Majlis, or national Parliament. By making good his run-off campaign to seek a fresh mandate halfway through his five-year term, he may hope to keep the alliance intact, if only to try and ensure that Mr. Gayoom’s Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) is not in the reckoning.

Economic and fiscal crises

The Maldives has a population of 300,000. Its per capita income is the highest for any country in South Asia — made possible by the opening up of resort-tourism to the private sector. Yet, the rich-poor divide has only grown. As the “people’s President,” Mr. Nasheed will be called upon to use the instruments of state to ensure an equitable distribution of the huge earnings of the private sector in a nation with zero taxation for local citizens. After a point, the Maldives cannot expect the international community to feed its poor when the nation can very well afford to find ways to do it.

In his address to the nation after being sworn in, Mr. Nasheed kept up a poll promise to give 2000 Maldivian rufiah (12.5 rufiah makes $1) a month each to men and women above the age of 65. Their number is around 17,000. There are other areas too where the government will have to take similar initiatives, and has to be seen as being as imaginative as it is pro-active.

Otherwise, too, the Maldives is in the midst of yet another fiscal problem. The foreign exchange crisis can be felt on the streets of Male, where banks do not have dollars for exchange. Spread across 1,192 islands grouped into 26 administrative units along its 950-km-length north-south orientation, the country cannot find the funds to meet the developmental needs of a thinly-distributed population in the 199 inhabited islands. The low density of population has made it difficult to reach healthcare and education, among other facilities, to every citizen.

What can India do?

The post-9/11 years have made the Maldives, along with Sri Lanka, the first line of defence for India along the all-important Indian Ocean sea-lane, through which most of the world’s oil is transported. Visiting India in July ahead of the presidential polls, Mr. Nasheed and other MDP leaders pooh-poohed suggestions that as President Mr. Gayoom had granted an isolated island for China to develop. They would not have any of it anyway if returned to power, Mr. Nasheed said at the time.

While smaller neighbours are ill-equipped to meet their strategic needs, India’s perception of their security should go beyond the traditional concepts. New Delhi needs to ensure political and economic stability of such nations, both in its own self-interest and otherwise. It needs to build on the goodwill that cuts across most party loyalties and instil it in future generations in the Maldives for a sustained relationship.

In an interview as President-elect, Mr. Nasheed spoke about setting up a ‘sovereign wealth fund’ from the $60-billion yearly foreign exchange earnings, to create a new ‘homeland’ for Maldivians, whose country faces submersion. He mentioned India, Sri Lanka or Australia in this context – the former two owing to historical and cultural linkages, and the latter because of the availability of land. While the ‘homeland’ concept is politically sensitive and constitutionally complex for the intended hosts, India needs to look at the underlying concern in a positive way.

Vice-President Hamid Ansari represented India at the swearing-in ceremony of Mr. Nasheed. The Government of India is evidently alive to the needs of the Maldivian government and people, both in hard and soft areas like infrastructure and energy, healthcare and education. Long before the presidential polls, the MDP leadership began engaging the Indian industry, and President Nasheed has already invited the private sector in the country to participate in Maldives’ growth and development. He is expected to take it up with the Indian leadership during his maiden presidential visit to New Delhi in the coming weeks. In the past, India had extended both budgetary and non-budgetary support to the Maldives – and there is scope and hope for greater cooperation.

Yet, the question remains. Should India offer the Maldives and Maldivians fish for their daily plate, or teach them fishing, and make them self-reliant and self-confident in their time? The answer is simple and straight. Self-supporting Maldivians and a self-confident Maldives are in the all-round interest of India, now and ever.

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