Both Bhutan and the Maldives constitute Southasia’s most interesting democratic experiments at the moment; and both seem to have hit on a formula to deal with India as a lucrative way to keep their boats afloat.
India is like a giant planet orbited by moons. Some of these moons, such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, are quite large; others are medium-sized, like Nepal and Sri Lanka; and then there are the tiny specks of Bhutan and the Maldives. India’s gravitational pull puts these latter firmly in the parent planet’s sphere of influence, but the moons are also protected from being swallowed up by their centrifugal force. However, that did not protect one moon, called Sikkim, from falling out of its orbit and merging with India in 1975. Despite its size and gravitational attraction, India has always looked at its neighbours with a sense of insecurity. India borders all of them, none of them border each other, but on the other hand they all surround India. The neighbours, for their part, have also tried to assert their independence by trying to counterbalance their proximity by being friendly with an outside power, usually China. And that is when friction arises.
Even though Beijing and New Delhi have made a gentlemen’s understanding to put their territorial disputes into deep freeze for now, and to work together with regard to their common dependence on the world’s natural resources, the traditional mutual suspicion between these two Asian giants has grown over the past few years. Beijing has tacitly acknowledged that countries south of the Himalaya are in India’s sphere of influence, in exchange for Indian acceptance of its annexation of Tibet. And lately, China’s strategic move to secure the region’s sea lanes for its energy and mineral imports from Africa and the Gulf has brought it into direct confrontation with India, which regards the ocean that bears its name as its backyard.
India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are conjoined triplets that are still going through pangs of separation. We know quite a lot about their complicated three-way relationship. Nepal and India, on the other hand, are so close that they distrust each other – especially when Kathmandu gets too cosy with Beijing, as happened during the nine-month reign of the Maoist-led government that ended in early May this year. Sri Lanka got away with palling around with both Pakistan and China, and India even tolerated Colombo buying arms from both because it did want the Tamil Tigers hunted into extinction. So that leaves us with the region’s two most idyllic countries: Bhutan and the Maldives. With a combined population of barely one million, one would expect India, with its population of one billion, not to be preoccupied with these tiny satellites. And yet, something is happening to the tectonics of Asian geopolitics that has made these two small neighbours suddenly very important to New Delhi.
The flight from Kathmandu to Paro is one of the most spectacular on earth. At 35,000 ft, Mt Everest slides away below the left windows. From this vantage point, you can see the arid brown of the Tibetan plateau beyond the Himalayan ridgeline, and realise just how effective a natural barrier the mountains have been in history. On the other side, meanwhile, the hazy Indo-Gangetic plain stretches off to the south like an ocean.
At Paro Airport, even as the plane taxies in to the apron, you see the large billboard depicting the last four kings of Bhutan. Then it hits you: you have just travelled from the world’s youngest republic to the world’s youngest democracy. In 2005, the fourth king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, suddenly announced to his shocked subjects that he was abdicating and putting his son, Jigme Keshar, on the throne. He also announced that a new constitution was in the offing, allowing political parties and elections. It was a smart move by an astute king, who had seen the instability that had befallen his neighbours and wanted to usher in democracy before his subjects demanded it. Possibly because he saw how Nepal lost its monarchy, he wanted to help to preserve his 100-year-old dynasty, by turning kings into constitutional monarchs with mandatory retirement at age 65. The Fourth King, as he is known, seems to have been driven by a deep-seated sense of national vulnerability, which has been the hallmark of Bhutan’s Drukpa rulers ever since they negotiated the country’s buffer status with British India.
Yet, not all Bhutanese are comfortable with the democracy that their king has thrust on them – least of all the politicians, who are not used to the suddenly irreverent free media and a vocal opposition bench in Parliament. The Bhutanese look at the chaos of democratic neighbours such as Bangladesh, Nepal and India and say that they were perfectly happy with their absolute monarchy. But from talking to well-placed Bhutanese, it seems the Fourth King did not take the decision to abdicate on a whim. He had started to lay the groundwork even as far back as 1990, with the systematic depopulation of the south of the Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa who were evicted and dumped in eastern Nepal with Indian help. If Bhutan was to be democratic, the demographics had to be taken care of first. The Bhutanese refugee issue has now been deftly defused, with 80,000 of the 110,000 refugees already in the process of being resettled from camps in Nepal to a consortium of Western countries.
The King Jigme then renegotiated the 1949 Treaty of Friendship with India. He had clauses removed that had required Bhutan to being guided by New Delhi on defence and foreign-policy matters, and added a new clause that stressed Bhutan’s independence and sovereignty. This was a coup beyond compare. In 2003, the king led his own army to flush out militants with the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) from camps in eastern Bhutan, earning brownie points in New Delhi. Bhutan has also integrated its economy with India by evolving as a major supplier of hydro-energy, and is set to export an additional 11,000 megawatts of power to India over the course of the next ten years. It was not just dexterous diplomacy and nifty footwork that got Thimphu all these concessions from New Delhi. King Jigme Singye had been cultivating a personal friendship with Rajiv Gandhi, and then Sonia, for years, which allowed the Bhutanese to get away with much more than the babus in South Block were sometimes willing to grant.
The contrast with the way that Nepal has traditionally mishandled India could not be starker. King Gyanendra, in the last lap of the Nepali monarchy, thought he had a trump up his sleeve when he decided to misinterpret signals and use the ‘China’ card. While Nepali politicians rarely miss an opportunity to play victim, denouncing ‘Indian interference’ and perennially playing China against India (even when they know it does not work), Bhutan runs circles around India by keeping Delhi happy and at arm’s length. Nepal is so scared of being bullied by India on joint river projects that, instead of selling power to India, it buys electricity from the latter to stave off a crippling energy shortage. Even power projects already agreed to are languishing, which means Nepal’s huge trade deficit with India will just keep growing, inevitably making the country even more politically dependent on India.
At the elegant Parliament building in Thimphu, Prime Minister Jigme Thinley admits to being a “little nervous” about his former king’s foray into democracy. His party was elected with an overwhelming majority in last year’s elections, and he says that proving to the sceptical Bhutanese public that democracy can raise their living standards will be difficult. “We made huge promises to the people at election time, and it will be a big challenge to meet them,” Thinley says. His party promised to build roads to all 205 local units, provide every Bhutanese with safe drinking water and electricity, ensure that a primary school is no more than an hour’s walk away for every child and staff every district hospital with three doctors and two ambulances. Southasian leaders often make wild promises such as these; but listening to Prime Minister Thinley speak earnestly in his Darjeeling-accented English, one gets the distinct feeling he means it. He takes accountability seriously, and seems to have a higher calling than merely delivering services: his government has to prove that it all has been made possible because of democracy. In today’s Bhutan, this is not just a slogan.
On foreign policy, one hears a refreshing pragmatism in Thimphu: no grandstanding, no rhetoric about Big Brother. “Bhutan’s choice of neighbours is determined by its geography. We happen to be on the southern slopes of the Himalaya, and we have relations with India of which we are happy,” says the prime minister, adding: “No country is truly independent; we will never do anything that will be harmful to India’s interest.” It is clear that Bhutan does not want to ruffle Indian feathers by trying to ‘normalise’ relations with China just yet, even though they share a border to the north. Thinley admits it is “unnatural” not to have diplomatic relations with a neighbouring country, but hints that Bhutan will never do so without a green light from Delhi.
Privately, however, over drinks late at night at Om’s Bar, one can hear murmurings about India keeping Bhutan ‘on a leash’, and it is clear that some Bhutanese are straining to get out from under the Indian thumb. The huge power projects that are bringing prosperity to Bhutan are seen by some as symbols of colonisation. In turn, all this makes some Indians suspicious about what really goes on in those annual Sino-Bhutanese border-delineation negotiations. One Bhutanese, who understands these nuances, gives this advice to a visiting Nepali: “It takes so little to keep the Indians happy, why are your people in Kathmandu always irritating them?” The fact that security is still an issue is clear from the visit to Thimphu by Indian Home Minister P Chidambaram in late August. The fact that his discussion with the king, the former king and the prime minister dealt with infiltration along the border and the activities of militants in India’s Northeast showed that crossborder movements remain a problem despite the action by the Royal Bhutan Army to drive them out six years ago.
Meeting the newly elected leaders of Bhutan and the Maldives during a recent trip, there was a hint that Southasia’s youngest democracies are indeed off to a good start. They are trying to learn from the mistakes of their neighbours, iron out democracy’s kinks and make it deliver. It is difficult not to be impressed with the leaders of two of Southasia’s smallest countries for their clear articulation of a vision for their countries’ development – something that is hard to see when talking to many other elected leaders in the region. As long as they manage their relations with India, things should be fine. But balancing Indian sensitivities with their own need for sovereignty will not be easy, given the new geo-strategic polarisation in the region. Bhutan and the Maldives have taken different paths to accommodate Delhi’s geopolitical concerns, but in both cases the newly elected leaders have decided that it is just not worthwhile to challenge India’s dominance. And they have found ways to use Delhi’s paranoia to work to their advantage.
It is 26 July, Independence Day, and in the main square in Male, children explore the insides of an armoured personnel carrier of the Maldivian military. A Coast Guard cutter spews sea water in a festive arc while the residents of the capital queue to get on board. In 2005, protests at this square in Male forced Asia’s longest-serving autocrat, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, to legalise political parties and declare elections. In run-off elections in October 2008, the former human-rights activist and journalist Mohamed Nasheed defeated Gayoom. Immediately after taking office, Nasheed showed that he likes doing things differently. He often abandons his official black SUV and walks to work, with just a bodyguard in tow. Passers-by greet him affectionately, using his nickname, ‘Anni’.
President Nasheed decided not to have a military parade on his first Independence Day, and instead to allow the public to inspect and touch the military hardware. “We want to demystify it,” explains the president, who was tortured during his long periods of detention under the Gayoom regime. On Independence Day, the president ceremonially received salutes from the heads of the security services, some of whom must have been responsible for his many detentions – more than 20 times in the past 15 years.
Sitting in a mosquito-infested gazebo at his modest official residence, President Nasheed phones an aide to bring a coil. The new president moved here from Gayoom’s plush presidential palace, which has been turned into the country’s Supreme Court. He greets visitors in the courtyard because he is conscious about wasting energy on air conditioning, which in the Maldives runs on electricity generated from thermal power plants. Climate change has become an obsession for him, and he is determined to make the Maldives ‘carbon neutral’ by 2020, so as to put moral pressure on rich countries to cut their own emissions. Nasheed has also cancelled plans to go the climate-change summit in Copenhagen in December to save costs, and will send his environment minister instead.
There is a reason for all this austerity. The number of tourists visiting the Maldives fell by half this year, due to the global recession. India and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have stepped in to bail out the Maldivian economy, but it is clear that further belt-tightening is needed, especially to deal with the USD 400 million damage caused by the 2004 tsunami, as well as the longer-term effect of rising sea levels caused by the changing climate. “My biggest challenge is the rising expectations of the citizens of this country,” says President Nasheed. “There is a huge expectation that democracy will improve lives.” The Maldives already has the highest living standard among SAARC countries, with a per capita gross domestic product of around USD 4500. Yet, there still is a crisis of joblessness and drug abuse among youth, and the outlying islands increasingly resent the well-being and clout of Male.
President Nasheed is also under pressure from within his own party to punish Gayoom for excesses during his rule, and the two have been circling each other warily. Last month, Gayoom was questioned by police on behalf of the Presidential Commission on Corruption, which appears to be an attempt to get the former president to stop his politicking. President Nasheed’s position in the 77-member Parliament is seen as fragile, and many warn that Gayoom could easily destabilise the new government if he wanted. The new president, however, likes to take the long and grand view. “We are governed differently now,” President Nasheed says. “We don’t have hang-ups about colonialism, we are not ultra-nationalists and we are more mature and confident as a nation.”
But even here in the tiny specks of coral atolls in the Indian Ocean, the regional powers are jostling for space. In the span of two months since July, there have been three high-level visits to Male by Indian officials: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s national security adviser, M K Narayanan; his climate-change adviser, Shyam Saran; and, in late August, Defence Minister A K Anthony. Maldivian Foreign Minister Ahmed Shaheed was on his way to Delhi as the Independence Day celebrations were taking place back home. India is clearly worried about two things: first, the presence of Maldivians in the al-Qaeda hierarchy and suspected training camps in some of the remote atolls; and second, what India sees as signs of growing Chinese influence.
It is hard to say which of these is more of a concern for India at present. But senior Indian and Maldivian officials alike dismiss the al-Qaeda threat, saying it is small and can be contained. Defence Minister Anthony has signed agreements with the Maldives to step up defence cooperation and install coastal radar detectors. The Maldivians are also going to let the Indian military fly patrols from an abandoned World War II Royal Air Force base until the Maldives establishes its own air force, for which Delhi has again promised help. Indian officials have recently hailed the process of “bringing the Maldives into the Indian coastal security setup.”
Such words are hard to take for some. Just as at the bar in Thimphu, in the Maldivian bistro, you can hear wariness of India and its designs on the atolls. The country being a democracy now, there was an immediate uproar in the Maldivian Parliament, just after Anthony left, and President Nasheed decided to go public with a radio address in which he justified the military alliance with India – and reassured that he would never sell out the sovereignty of the country. Some Maldivians also feel they have an opportunity here: to use Indian security concerns to their own benefit. In this way, the could have their extensive 200-km Special Economic Zone patrolled by the Indians for free, so as to control smugglers and fishing fleets that poach in their waters.
Still, in what could easily prove to be the most significant engine for Indian interest in the atolls, the Chinese spectre seems to be looming nearer. India has also been concerned about the Chinese government building ports in the Indian Ocean: in Hambantota, on the southern tip of Sri Lanka; in Gwadar, in Pakistan; and on the islands off Burma. Even in the Maldives, the Chinese are said to have a strong presence in the construction industry, having built the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building as well as the National Museum. Ultimately, India’s need to improve its coastal security to stave off possible terrorist attacks – such as the seaborne one on Bombay last year – as well as its wish to send a signal to China to keep away, could be prompting Delhi’s latest overtures to the Maldives. Whatever the case, the leaders of the Maldives seem to have realised (like the Bhutanese did long ago) that that there is much more to be gained by keeping India happy than by needlessly needling New Delhi. And if this means making a show of extreme concern for Delhi’s sensitivities about the Southasia outreach by the Chinese, then so be it. This is perhaps something that other bigger moons of Planet India can do only at their own peril, for the internal political dynamics are somewhat different.
~ Kunda Dixit is editor of the Nepali Times