Malice from the Maldives

Keen to make big friends and influence distant powers, Narendra Modi has been on a diplomatic overdrive these four years. In the process, he has been neglecting his neighbourhood.

Modi came to power mocking at Manmohan Singh’s “love letters to Pakistan”, and boasting of a 56-inch chest. Since then, India has been getting it on all fronts in the western theatre—on the LoC, on the IB, within the valley, and even in Pathankot, Punjab. More of our troops were killed in the last two years than in any other earlier year.

To the Chinese, it was Manmohan who showed a brave chest. He raised a mountain strike corps and two new divisions against them, and moved Sukhoi squadrons and BrahMos regiments up close. The Chinese behaved.

But they have been nasty with Modi. Slighted over Modi’s rejection of his invite to the belt-and-road jamboree, Xi Jinping sent his road-builders to Doklam on the Bhutan border. Modi sent troops to scare them, and a border stand-off followed. A face-saver deal was worked out, but we still don’t know who blinked. Even our military chiefs don’t know. The air chief says the Chinese are still there; the army chief says they aren’t.

The Bhutanese, once the most docile and the only ones who stood with us against the belt-and-road, are now said to be slipping into China’s lap. The Lankans have been managed—just about. They have stopped hosting Chinese warships in their ports, but their Hambantota port has been leased to the Chinese.

The Banglas are helpful, but that is because the Sheikh Hasina regime survives on a pro-India constituency. But the lady is making more enemies every day with her high-handed ways, and any outburst of opposition fire against her may scald India, too.

The Nepalese, who supply us the most loyal troops we can ever recruit, have been turning difficult, especially after Modi sent his foreign secretary to tell them how to write their constitution. They believe India had engineered the blockade of goods and fuel trucks to the Kathmandu valley a year ago. They are now waiting for the rail track from Tibet to Nepal be completed for goods rakes and fuel wagons from China to chug in.

The most painful slap on India’s face has come from the Maldives, once India’s friendliest neighbour, now ruled by a China-friendly president. He came in through a coup which India couldn’t prevent, and then exiled his predecessor. Now he has imposed an emergency regime, sent judges to jail and is pretending not to hear India’s words of caution. The unkindest cut of all was his refusal to send his Coast Guard, essentially a patrol-boat flotilla that has been groomed, armed and trained entirely by India, to join the India-hosted multi-navy Milan exercise.

Illustration: Bhaskaran

India has been building a grand security dome across the Indian Ocean, but a truant Maldives could undermine it. The dome would stretch from the Malacca Strait to the Horn of Africa, and from Diego Garcia to the Gulf of Oman. Singapore is letting us dock our warships in their port. The Seychelles have let us build radars on their coast to scan the seas, and even agreed to lease us their Assumption Island for building naval berths. Oman has been persuaded to lease land to India to build a base. Next week, Emmanuel Macron will sign a deal allowing Modi to berth our ships in France’s Reunion Islands near Madagascar and in Djibouti. Mauritius is willing to lend us Agalega island to build naval rigs. There is already a logistics deal with the US which gives us access to Diego Garcia.

Indeed a grand security dome over the waters! But it could prove to be a bubble in the water, if the Maldives choose to prick it by hosting Chinese and Pakistani ships coming in from Gwadar.