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No nation is just an island

Maldives will test if India is capable of being effective yet non-intrusive with its neighbours.
Hindustan Times | By HT Correspondent
UPDATED ON FEB 08, 2012 10:44 PM IST

There will be a temptation to dismiss the recent political unrest in the Maldives as an academic matter - and for a very small circle of specialists. This is, after all, a nation of small islands with a population the size of an Indian town. This could not be further from the truth. The real test of a forward Indian foreign policy and the true measure of India's capability to be a future global player lies in how well it handles the countries in its immediate neighbourhood. The smaller the challenge, the more necessary it is that India manage it in a manner that is responsible, peaceful and stability-inducing. If New Delhi sits on its hands when a place as close to its shores and as relatively peaceable as the Maldives has a convulsion, the rest of the world will rightly assume that handling a West Asian crisis or crafting a world trade treaty will always be beyond India's reach. India will be destined to follow the rules drafted by others rather than be seated at the table helping create these rules.

The Maldives may be small, but their problems reflect many of the broader issues that India will have to face in its relations with all of its neighbours. There is a strong case for saying that the conflict between President Mohammed Nasheed and the Maldivian opposition parties reflected the lack of a mature political culture in the island nation, a consequence of its recent transition to democracy. The weakness of democratic institutions and norms can be seen in all of India's neighbours. The Maldives will be among the first and among the most dramatic victims of global warming. It is, in its own way, a laboratory for the development of a secular liberal polity with a Sunni Muslim population.

Finally, this is a nation whose entire political leadership has reached a consensus to maintain as close a relationship to India as possible. Nasheed may have declared an "India first" foreign policy, but there was no real opposition to this viewpoint from any leader in Male. Other countries in which New Delhi hopes to see a similar consensus emerge will be affected by how effectively and non-intrusively India operates during something like the Maldives crisis. One has only to look at how disastrously China has functioned over the past three years. Beijing's hamhandedness with almost every one of its neighbours has undone a decade of foreign policy gains and will take years to repair. As far as India is concerned, events in the Maldives are more important than those in Syria - because the former is a test of New Delhi's ability to exert influence while the latter is an example of India's lack of leverage in realms far from its borders.

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