By N Sathiya Moorthy
All is well that ends well. Or that could be the motto for the average Maldivians that has worked on the ground for the Islamic nation. With fundamentalist tendencies leading to competitive politics of which it became a part, the Government may have lost the initiative / political advantage gained by the unprecedented efforts at hosting a successful SAARC Summit in the southern Addu City, though it also meant that the people’s attention might have got diverted from price rise and other economic issues. But only for a time.
The managed float of the rufiyaa meant that Maldives deliberately devalued the currency under IMF advice. It translated that President Mohammed Nasheed would have to pay a price for the management of the economy at least in the interim after the local council polls across the atoll-nation had showed only weeks earlier that his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) still did extremely well. A series of measures aimed at economic self-reliance to whatever possible extent, like a new taxation policy where none existed and insistence for making all dues to the Government in the local currency, meant that the convertible US currency became dearer for those travelling overseas regularly for education, medical care and trade, and prices shot up for all Maldivians. Considering that much of the consumables from food to sand, medicines and the rest are imported, often from countries like Sri Lanka, India and Australia, it was saying a lot in terms of retaining popular support for President Nasheed’s leadership and vision.
Yet, the Government argued, and not without impact, that Maldivians had to think afresh and pragmatically, as much on the economic front as they had done on the democratic front when they replaced President Maumoon Gayoom after 30 long years in office and through the ballot, not bullet, in Elections-2008. Much of the transitional hiccups that the country faced in the previous year, in the form of a deadlocked constitutional process involving all three pillars of democracy, namely, the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary, had wound up in 2011. Some unwritten rules were in place where the 2007 Constitution was silent, and the nation’s polity was alive to the possibilities of real-time democracy and accepted them as a part of the evolutionary process. This meant that the differences between the Government and a fracturing Opposition was limited to policies rather than procedures, punctuated as they were by the personal positions taken by individuals and their perceptions of what was good for the nation and acceptable to the people. That is also what democracy is also all about.
If the MDP thought that a vertical split in Gayoom’s Dhivehi Rayyathunge Party (DRP) would benefit it in electoral terms that need not be so, as subsequent events have proved. The breakaway People’s Party of Maldives (PPM), with Gayoom’s stamp and authority when it came to popular acceptance, may still face an internal tussle over the party’s presidential candidate in 2013. However, that has not stopped the party now from projecting a common cause with the DRP parent and the rest of the Opposition on larger issues of ‘Islam’, which is fast becoming a political binding force. The competing protests on ‘defending Islam’ and ‘moderate Islam’ on December 23 in the national capital Male saw the combined Opposition arraigned against the MDP. If there was no street violence, as used to be the case and as feared this time too, it still meant that through the coming year, Parliament and the nation’s polity would still be seized of religious politics than political freedoms and economic uplift of the individual and the nation.
The controversial statement by the equally controversial UNHRC chief, Navi Pillay, in Maldives, seeking a ‘national discourse’ on Islam by reviewing flogging laws for women and the earlier vandalism targeting the SAARC monuments of Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal at Addu City, terming them as idolatrous unacceptable to Islamic tenets, have added a new dimension and urgency to the study of fundamentalism in Maldives. Earlier in the year, and flowing from the arrest of some militants along the Pak-Af border elsewhere in the troubled South Asian neighbourhood, there were reports of some Maldivians had plotted to target the World Cup cricket tourney played in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Nothing much came of the reported Interpol alert that the Maldivian authorities denied in the first place, but the seriousness with which the nation’s polity debated and divided Islam may have put the security agencies both in the country and the immediate neighbourhood on notice.
No discourse of a South Asian country will be complete without reference to China. India has concerns in the matter as much as it is concerned about fundamentalism in that country. On China, as much as Beijing’s intentions, it is Maldivians acceptance that would matter, now as ever. While China is in the business of doing business, particularly on the infrastructure front, where it has tons of money to invest, that does not automatically translate into a strategic relations -- least of all if Indian concerns would be compromised. The year did witness internal discourses inside the Maldivian establishment, both in specifics of granting hospitality space for a Chinese firm, and in generalities flowing from that.
On the issue of fundamentalism, India’s concerns are real, considering in particular that many Maldivians visit south Indian destinations for school and collegiate education and emergency medical care for family members, as also for trade and business. After stalling visa procedures that allowed free entry, in the light of a policy-decision, the Government made an exception for Maldivians as 2011 wound up. Earlier, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was at the SAARC Summit and commended its organisation and content, had witnessed a series of agreements between the two countries, after talks with President Nasheed in Male. The visit and the agreements are expected to set the tone and tenor of bilateral relations in the coming year and in the future, too, where there will be greater maritime cooperation, including security and transportation linkages but not necessarily stopping with the same, and continuing Indian aid, if not education from one’s experience, as Maldives continues haltingly on the hurdle-some road of economic self-reliance and democratic freedoms, but not necessarily in that order.
(The writer is Senior Research Fellow and Director of the Chennai Chapter of the multi-disciplinary Indian public policy think-tank, Observer Research Foundation, ORF, headquartered in New Delhi. email: email@example.com)