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Not marginal troubles

india Updated: Feb 25, 2013 22:43 IST

The Maldives was originally seen as a great Indian diplomatic success. Today, the Maldives has come to encapsulate all that can go wrong in the creation of a “peaceful periphery” around India. Thankfully, the Maldives is small enough that New Delhi is more irritated than alarmed at developments there.

But the island nation is a laboratory for India’s attempts to develop special bonds with all its South Asian neighbours. At the heart of these relationships is a desire to persuade all the major political players in these countries to address Indian security concerns and, in return, participate in the rewards of India’s economic growth.

The Maldives was seen as the exemplar of such a relationship, especially given its willingness to hand over much of its own maritime security to New Delhi. The awarding of the Male airport, the most important commercial asset of the country, to an Indian firm seemed only to consolidate this bond.

Finally, the country seemed to have settled dowindia-maldives, n to a democratic routine implicitly guaranteed by New Delhi. Today, of course, the airport is being shifted out of the Indian firm’s hands. The sparring between the two main political leaders resulted in the last president, Mohammed Nasheed, seeking refuge in the Indian High Commission for nearly two weeks.

There are clear lessons for India as it seeks to engage its neighbours. One is that India should be seen as an impartial player in the domestic politics of these countries. Nasheed tries to play an Indian card repeatedly in part because he was seen as the closer friend of India.

Two, Indian firms should be encouraged to invest in these countries with as little political backing from New Delhi as possible. The more their overseas economic activity is based only on commercial considerations, the less chance such investments have of falling afoul of domestic politics.

Three, security and other arrangements should be done in a bipartisan spirit. This will be a difficult and laborious diplomatic path to take. But in the long term it will vaccinate India from the sort of troubles that presently bedevil its Maldives relationship — and in countries who are much more sizeable and more difficult.