India First’ policy touted by Government of India is becoming ‘India Last’, in practice.
Some days ago, the Indian Express carried a short news item concerning the Maldives, which claimed that the Government of India had decided—as a gesture of friendship to China—against any form of intervention in the country which, though small in size, is core to primacy over the westernmost quadrant of the waters of the Indo-Pacific. Earlier, news reports had been printed of a flotilla from the PLA Navy steaming towards the Maldives, and which had (according to several accounts) dissuaded Delhi from going ahead with a strategy designed to restore democracy in the Maldives, as demanded by ousted Head of State Mohammad Nasheed and countless other moderate and freedom-loving voices in the archipelago.
The lack of action by India thus far on the Maldivian situation follows a very public snub to Nasheed administered recently by Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, and a lengthy period of silence by the MEA over developments in the Maldives after an initial burst of advice to Coup Leader Abdulla Yameen to abide by democratic principles and methods. Advice that was not simply ignored, but rejected with contempt by Yameen, under whom the Maldives has become a key recruiting station for ISIS and Al Qaeda, and where the moderate, syncretic Islam that still holds sway in India is rapidly giving way to Wahhabism. The BJP has apparently kept Prime Minister Narendra Modi so busy politicking that he has not found the time to focus on several issues that are unrelated to the party project of making the BJP what the Congress Party under Jawaharlal Nehru was in the 1950s, all-powerful except for a Communist Party government in Kerala led by E.M.S. Namboodiripad that was soon toppled by the Central government on the specious ground that law and order had broken down.
It had not, despite the best (or worst, rather) efforts of a coalition comprising the CIA and caste and religious leaders in the state to create chaos. Unless Modi steps forward and de-freezes the current block on an effective response by his government to the liquidation of democracy and moderation in the Maldives, any talk of India’s elevated standing in the easternmost quadrant of the Indo-Pacific will be impossible to sustain.
China regards not simply primacy, but dominance in the South China Sea to be an essential requirement in its steady progression towards displacing the United States as the primary power on the globe. Once that objective gets fulfilled, the next theatre for establishment of primacy will be the Indian Ocean, from where Beijing will work to displace the US as the dominant military force in the ocean waters. For the US, the only route towards retaining its dominance would be a partnership with India, initial steps towards which have been taken through the Quadrilateral Alliance of the US, Australia, Japan and India (hopefully to soon get expanded with the entry of Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines). Thus far, a hypercautious Lutyens Zone bureaucracy has fended off US efforts to get India to sign the other two of the three Foundation Defense Agreements, even after suitable tweaking of the language in them to take account of the lingering Cold War sentiment still prevalent in Delhi.
Neither will the US be long able to fend off Chinese moves to establish primacy over the Indian Ocean by itself nor can India alone come anywhere near having primacy for itself within these waters, important though that is for a country aiming to be a part of the global Big Four of the future, together with Russia, the US and China. If India regards itself as unable to back even its closest friends (such as the legitimate Head of State of the Maldives, Mohammad Nasheed), it is clear that the “India First” policy touted by the Government of India is in practice “India Last”. The Maldives, Sri Lanka and Indonesia are essential allies in any strategy designed to ensure the primacy of India (in conjunction with its Quad allies) within the eastern quadrants of the Indo-Pacific. Should the Modi government walk away from action designed to ensure the restoration of democracy and a rollback of officially sanctioned Wahhabism in the Maldives, the credibility of New Delhi as a friend and its deadliness as a foe would verge on the inconsequential. Some in the Lutyens Zone claim that it is Washington that has counselled Delhi to hold its fire in the Maldives crisis.
If true, this indicates a failure of Indian diplomacy to convince the US of the criticality of action in the Maldives to the objective of the Quad retaining its dominant position within the Indo-Pacific. Abandoning the forces of democracy and moderation in the Maldives to a dire fate at the hands of Wahhabi fanatics would result in a sharp loss of credibility for the Quad among the regional powers. The Maldives is the first major test for the four-nation alliance, and thus far, it has failed the examination miserably.
Once the anti-Quad forces in the Maldives comprehensively eliminate moderate competitors through the use of muscle power, political groups in Sri Lanka would draw the appropriate conclusion: that the US and India are shaky allies at best, while China (which has been a consistent backer of Abdulla Yameen) is far more reliable in good times or bad. Given the past unpleasantness between the (newly ascendant) Rajapaksa family in Sri Lanka and the Lutyens Zone, it would be logical for the formidable former President of Sri Lanka to reach the conclusion that the downside is small to treating Delhi the way Coup President Abdulla Yameen in Male and Prime Minister K.P. Oli in Kathmandu are doing. As for Indonesia, it has watched as Wahhabi groups in Pakistan were funded, armed and trained for generations by the US and its allies, enabling them to grow to a monster that poses a threat to global security.
Since military dictator Suharto entered upon a clandestine relationship with religious extremists in Indonesia in the 1990s, Wahhabi groups have been multiplying in a country which till recently was a bastion of moderation and syncretic values. Unless Jakarta joins Colombo and Male in dropping anchor within the protective ring formed by the Quadrilateral Alliance, resistance to Wahhabism will remain inadequate for a rollback of this pernicious doctrine. If the first (and smallest) domino in the shape of the Maldives remains in the control of Wahhabi forces opposed to the Quad, the others are at risk of following suit. Hopefully, those reports that talk of a policy of pusillanimous inaction over the crisis in the Maldives will soon be proved wrong, else it will be clear that India Last has prevailed over India First.