Thursday, February 23, 2012

How India Missed the Opportunity in the Maldives

By T.P.Sreenivasan

Mohamed Nasheed, elected in 2008 as President of the Maldives, the cluster of islands in the Indian Ocean off the cost of the Indian Peninsula, was the first ever head of state to hold a cabinet meeting under the sea to demonstrate the danger of his state disappearing as a result of global warming. But little did he realize that his tiny state had other more imminent vulnerabilities.

Nasheed, lost as he was in his quest for a global role, failed to attend to local and regional issues and gradually lost his mass base. He was reportedly contemplating resignation, but he claimed last week that he was forced to submit his resignation at gunpoint by the security forces. His long-term friend and associate, Waheed Hassan, took over power. It did not take long for Nasheed to realize that Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the autocratic ruler of the islands for thirty years, who had lost the election, was behind his ouster. The events that led to the resignation of Nasheed are shrouded in mystery, but the fingerprints of Gayoom and Waheed cannot be erased.

Gayoom himself faced threats of coups in 1980 and 1983, not to speak of assassination attempts. In 1988, mercenaries from Sri Lanka arrived in the neighboring Maldives to subvert his regime. The Indian navy, whom Gayoom invited to deal with the situation, easily crushed the attempted coup. In the first operation of its kind in its backyard, India asserted its supremacy in the region, which was acknowledged by the world

It is widely believed that the assertive manner in which Rajiv Gandhi dealt with the crisis in Maldives in 1988 marked the emergence of India as the regional power. Subsequently, India's handling of the tsunami in 2004 and piracy in later years gave India a predominant role in the Indian Ocean. But in keeping with his low profile style, Manmohan Singh decided to let the local events play out and adopted a containment approach in consultation with the US and Europe. He lost an opportunity to reaffirm the predominant Indian role in its own backyard.

India's neighborhood policy has been a mix of assertiveness, reciprocity, benevolence and even concessions, basically aimed at keeping external forces at bay and enhancing influence. It has, however, refrained from any kind of intervention for system or regime change. India has dealt with democrats and dictators alike to pursue its interests. Being the biggest and the most prosperous country in the region, India has been under tremendous pressure inside the regional organization, South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, (SAARC) for unilateral concessions. The situation in the regional forum is farther complicated by the manifestation of Pakistan's hostility in different forms. Exclusion of consideration of bilateral issues was a precondition imposed by India to enter the forum, but Pakistan has breached that understanding on several occasions. The entry of external powers as observers in the Association too has posed its own challenges to India. China’s generosity towards the countries of the region shines in contrast with India’s modest and modulated assistance programs.

In the specific case of Maldives, India's twin concerns are growth of fundamentalism, with the active support of Pakistan and the growing influence of China. Gayoom ran an Islamic state, but did not allow Maldives to be overrun by fundamentalists and he maintained a certain distance from China. At the same time, he maintained a cordial relationship with India, became a beneficiary of Indian economic assistance and provided a higher comfort level to India than its other neighbors. But, perhaps unknown to Gayoom and India, fundamentalist tendencies have been growing in Maldives. China’s rise and assertiveness have caused concern to India not just in India’s neighborhood, but also in distant Africa and Latin America. India is better equipped to deal with this challenge in its neighborhood rather than in distant lands. But the events in the Maldives have enhanced the threat from fundamentalism as well as from China.

India had no role in the advent of Nasheed, but it had no qualms about working with him, particularly since his was a democratic victory. But by failing to advise him to focus on local issues and letting him fall has struck a blow to democracy in the Maidives. India's decision to fall back on an Islamic and authoritarian Government to protect and promote its interests is a sad commentary on its neighborhood policy. By coordinating its efforts with the US and others, when India had the option to take an initiative, it has surrendered the regional domination it had asserted in 1988. It was by no accident that the Indian and the US envoys landed in the Maldives more or less at the same time.

India's options have narrowed down to encouraging Waheed to form a new unity Government with Nasheed's participation, if possible. An immediate election has been ruled out. It is incumbent upon India to engage the various sections of the people and encourage the establishment of a democracy. Gayoom's known inclination to appease the fundamentalists and Nasheed's claim that his ouster has strengthened Chinese influence on the islands should raise alarm bells in New Delhi. Timely intervention to strengthen Nasheed and to prevent his downfall was an easier option for India.

Iran: A Narrow Window of Opportunity for India

By T.P.Sreenivasan

A much publicized visit by President Ahmedinijad of Iran to a nuclear facility and the announcement that Iran was proposing to unveil a new variety of centrifuge, which is capable of enriching uranium four times faster, created war hysteria even though there was nothing new in the Iranian position. Iran stopped short of giving any evidence of weaponisation and offered to continue talks. A team of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had just completed a visit to Iran. But pressure mounted on India from the US as well as the strategic thinkers at home that India should intervene to defuse the crisis. Several US Congressmen have begun a campaign in the US against Indian policy towards Iran. The bombing of an Israeli car in New Delhi has added momentum to the demand for action by India.

The United States has been making two contradictory demands on India with regard to Iran ever since reports of the Iranian nuclear adventure surfaced suddenly in Vienna in 2002. First, India was asked to join in the effort to condemn Iran and to threaten action through the procedures of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran was clearly guilty of having concealed for twenty years its efforts to develop enrichment technology. The development of such technology was not against the letter and spirit of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but it was incumbent upon the signatories to report such activities to the IAEA and seek safeguards inspection.

The second demand, which has been growing over the years, is that India should use its “tremendous influence” over Iran to dissuade the latter to give up its pursuit of nuclear technology. The theory that India has great influence over the Islamic Republic of Iran itself is exaggerated, given the nature of the regime and India’s own dissatisfaction over the role of Iran in the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) on Kashmir. Moreover, if India were to join the western countries in moving the IAEA mechanism to punish Iran, it would lose whatever leverage it had as a traditional and civilizational friend of Iran.

Even with this apparent contradiction in the expectation of the US of India’s role, India has been pursuing both possibilities. In Vienna, we made a significant shift in our traditional policy with regard to issues relating to the implementation of the NPT. We had abstained on such issues, notably in the case of allegations against North Korea’s violations of the NPT. Our explanation was that since we were not signatories to the NPT, we would not be party to any judgment on the acts of omission or commission of the signatories. The US had suspected that we would do the same with the Iranian file and escape any responsibility to censure Iran for its misdemeanors. It, therefore, came as an infinite relief to the US and the western powers that we did not hesitate to state that NPT signatories should abide by their solemn commitment to the treaty that they had voluntarily signed. The message went out loud and clear that India did not want another nuclear weapon state in its neighbourhood.

Consistent with the new and forthright position on NPT, India did not join the nonaligned bandwagon, created by Malaysia and driven by the more radical supporters of Iran, which tried to counter western propaganda against Iran. We participated in the nonaligned discussions on possible Iranian amendments to western draft resolutions, but did not subscribe to any amendment on the plea that we had not joined the consensus on any of the pronouncements of the nonaligned on the NPT. On one or two occasions, Iran complained to their lobbies in India that the Indian position in Vienna was not helpful.

It was against this background that the US increased the pressure on India to vote openly against Iran in the IAEA after the advent of the nuclear deal. Iran became the fulcrum of the negotiations on the nuclear deal as the US Congress insisted on India’s policy on Iran being consistent with US policy as a quid pro quo for the nuclear deal. The Hyde Act was explicit on this issue and India acquiesced in it when India voted to take the Iranian violation of the NPT to the Security Council. Together with the American demand for India to abandon the proposed pipeline from Iran, the US pressed India to move to the flanks of the anti-Iran front. The US did not seem to mind killing the potential golden goose, an India with good relations with both Iran and the US.

India, however, wriggled out of the US grip soon enough for reasons of its own larger strategic, economic and political interests in Iran and applied some correctives and moved some distance away from its antagonistic position towards Iran. Given the complexities that had crept in the position of the US itself on the Afghanistan imbroglio and President Barack Obama’s cautious approach to the war option, the US found the Indian moves more of an opportunity than a challenge. US diplomacy with India on Iran became subtler. The US began to believe that India’s friendly attitude towards Iran could be beneficial in its new strategy of measured sanctions rather than threat of war against Iran. The sanctions, we were told recently by the White House Press Secretary, were being implemented "in a way that had the desired effect just to pressure and isolate Iran further, and did not have unintended consequences for any of its allies."

India has never defied UN mandatory sanctions against any country, but not without pointing out that the suffering imposed on the people would be far in excess of the political benefits derived from the targeted regimes. For that very reason, India does not join any voluntary sanctions regime. In the case of Iran, India has no option, except to continue to buy Iranian oil, despite the political pressure from the US and the European Union. Buying Iranian oil, which amounts to twelve percent of its total imports, is vital for India to fuel its sagging economy. The US itself should understand that India may be able to work with Iran to provide stability in Afghanistan and its neigbourhood after the withdrawal of the American forces. India has worked around the banking restrictions as a matter of necessity by making payments to Iran through Turkey. A barter arrangement is also being contemplated to meet contingencies.

Iranian threats to disrupt shipping in the Gulf in retaliation to European sanctions have sent shivers down the spine of the Indian leaders because of the massive presence of Indians and Indian investments in the Gulf. Indian investors are awaiting some relaxation in the US-Iran standoff to expand their activities.

The liability issue in the case of nuclear supplies, charges of trade protectionism and the Indian decision not to buy American fighter aircraft have slowed down India-US relations and both the countries are looking for avenues to find a new area for cooperation.

The best that India can do to boost its ties with the United States is to prove helpful in reducing tensions between the US and Iran. With shared concerns and hopes about Iran, India, more than others like Russia or China, is in a position to be an honest broker to reduce the gap between the US and Iran and to remove the threat of war. India’s warmth towards Israel is also an asset for India. “Based on its relatively good relationships with both countries, India could attempt to broker a deal, which will, in effect, bring Iran out of its isolation - partly self imposed and partly forced by the US because of Israeli paranoia – that it has faced for many years”, says Rajeev Srinivasan, in a passionately argued case for Indian intervention.

While the benefits of such a proactive role by India, in both strategic and tactical terms, are beyond question, much depends on how willing the United States will be to see India in a mediatory role. The bitter experience of Turkey and Brazil, which tried to resolve the issue of Iranian uranium cannot be forgotten. Both the countries claimed that they were authorized to negotiate a settlement, but the US rejected the outcome outright, forcing those countries to abandon the results of their labour. The United States may welcome efforts by others to bring Iran in line, but it is not likely to trust any other country with making any compromise on its behalf.

The assurances given by Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai in Washington recently and the Indian vote on Syria in the Security Council may have enhanced the level of confidence the US has in India, but India will have to await the right moment to work with the United States and Iran to achieve the twin objectives of averting war and preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. To encourage India to use a narrow window of opportunity it has in this regard, the US should refrain from demonizing Indian policy towards its Iran.

Crisis Beyond Diplomacy

By T.P.Sreenivasan

Bewilderment was writ large on the faces of the hundreds of famished, half naked and sun drenched fishermen, who awaited the arrival of the bodies of two of their kind, Ajesh Binki and Gelastine, on the Neendakara beach near Kollam in Kerala on February 15, 2012. Death and destruction are not uncommon in their daily struggle with the sea and loss of lives in the outer sea is a way of life for them. But death from the bullet shots from a foreign ship was a new experience, which they could not comprehend. It was a rude shock for them, whose safety net consisted only of superstitions and blind faith in the 'mother sea', who protected and punished.

An Italian oil tanker, M.V.Enrica Lexie, with a crew of 34, including 19 Indian sailors, was travelling from Singapore to Egypt close to the Indian coast around 1630 hours, when it noticed an Indian fishing boat, ‘St.Antony’ approaching it. According to the ship’s captain, Umberto Vitelli, the boat appeared menacing and, fearing that it was a pirate vessel, the Italian security men opened fire after giving the customary warnings to the boat. Freddie Louis, the owner and captain of the fishing vessel, on the other hand, claimed that in the broad daylight, there was no reason for suspicion and that the “trigger-happy” Italians shot at his boat without any warning.

The two versions of the incident vary in details, such as the location of the two vessels at the time of the incident and whether the international norms relating to piracy situations were observed. The Italian ship was seen to be speeding away from the scene rather than going to the help of the fishing boat it had attacked. But no one disputes the fact that two innocent Indian fishermen fell victim to indiscriminate firing by Italian gunmen. There should be no two opinions about the need to investigate the incident, punish the guilty and pay compensation for the loss of lives.

The incident has, however, spun out of control for a number of reasons. The public outrage in Kerala over the action of a foreign ship against the fishermen was instant and intense. Without giving much credit to the Indian navy and the coastguard, which managed to bring the ship to the Kochi port, the call was for immediate retribution. The normally lethargic Kerala police swung into action to question the captain and the crew and to arrest the gunmen. The Government in the state and at the centre did not want to be seen to be indecisive in defending national interests in the middle of a crucial bye-election campaign in the state. The opposition propaganda was that India would not be able to stand up to the Italians, quoting the Qattarochi case as a pointer. Italy’s unrepentant efforts to rescue their ship and crew have added fuel to the fire. Italy maintains that the incident took place in international waters and, therefore, India has no jurisdiction.

The Indian position, which has overwhelming support in the country, is that the criminal act of cold-blooded murder of the fishermen should be dealt with according to Indian laws, without any diplomatic interference. The police and legal authorities in Kerala are proceeding on that basis. The gunmen are in police custody and orders have been issued to search the ship and confiscate the guns. Italy prefers a diplomatic solution. Moreover, Italy has been harping on the excellent relations between the two countries, which should not be harmed by this incident. The array of senior Italian diplomatic officials moving in and out of South Block is a clear indication of the intense diplomatic pressure being mounted on the central Government. India has not shown any sign of relenting on the due process of law being applied in this case.

A particular irony in this case is the recognition and reputation that India has gained in its fight against piracy, primarily from Somalia, in the Indian Ocean. The alertness of the Indian navy and coastguards has won international approbation. In fact, shipping circles say that foreign ships stay close to the Indian territorial waters because of this confidence. To imagine that a slow fishing boat with an Indian flag may have been a pirate ship is seen as the height of irrationality.

The redeeming factor in the Italian case is only that there could not have been any ulterior motive in the killing of the Indian fishermen. If only the Italians had accepted that it was a wrong judgment on the part of the crew of the ship, apologized and offered adequate compensation, the matter could have been resolved. But their whole approach has been defiant, and this has left the Government of India with no option, but to let the law take its course with no political or diplomatic intervention.

With the arrival of the Italian Vice-Foreign Minister on the scene, there is hope that matters will be resolved to mutual satisfaction. But the situation may have already been complicated by the cases registered by both sides and a compensation case filed by the wife of one of the deceased. The ship remains detained in Indian waters and the gunmen are languishing in police custody. The issue will not be resolved on the basis of bilateral relations or diplomatic negotiations. A hint given in Rome by a recently installed Indian Cardinal, Mar George Alancherry, that nothing should be done to hurt relations with Italy created a stir even among the believers, prompting the Cardinal to deny any such advice. Only a settlement with the involvement of affected families and local authorities can help in the highly explosive situation. The sooner this is done, the better it will be for India’s relations with Italy and the rest of Europe. The position of the Government so far has won some kudos, but the moment it tries to resolve the issue diplomatically, the ghosts of Bhopal and Bofors will be resurrected to destroy the credibility of the Government. The people of India will be convinced once again that India is incapable of safeguarding its own interests.