Thursday, September 27, 2018

VICTORY OF DEMOCRACY IN MALDIVES

          Victory of opposition candidate Ibu Solih in the recent Presidential election in Maldives must be hailed as one of the  remarkable events in the history of democracy in our times. We are passing through an era, when democracy has been receding in most parts of the world and watchdogs of Democracy like 'Freedom House' to 'V-Dem' have been expressing concern over decline in civil liberties and political freedom at a wider scale. Under these circumstances, electoral outcome in  Maldives is a certainly a boost for democracy. Sadly, certain sections of  our own media have hailed  the electoral outcome as major boost for India, given pro-China inclinations of incumbent President Yameen. I feel that the world, and particularly  we Indians, need to see the development more from the perspective of aspirations of Maldivian people. We need to salute the brave people of Maldives who have endured everything and yet asserted in no uncertain terms that they stood for democracy, freedom and individual liberty. It is no longer possible for any autocrat to take them back to regressive era by hoodwinking them in the name of Islam or whipping up national jingoism. 

        Building Democracy is a long and arduous process, which can lose direction at any stage. Maldives had transitioned to multi-party democracy almost a decade back in 2008. It was one of the rare cases where an incumbent President - Abdul Gayoom, who had virtually ruled the country for nearly three decades, agreed to hold multi-party polls and gracefully accepted peoples' verdict to exit from power. The incoming Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP)  too showed accommodation by refraining from any political revenge against the outgoing President, despite a previous history of acrimonious relationship between the two. However, institutions of democracy had not yet matured and President Nasheed was ousted in 2012 under the most unfortunate circumstances. Following weeks of protest by opposition parties, he had resigned and later alleged that he was made to resign virtually at gun point. Subsequent Maldivian Government pressed terror charges against him forcing him to jump bail and take refuge in the United Kingdom. He  was not alone in doing so as many other opposition politicians either fled the country or were put behind bars. 

            President Yameen has certainly been guilty of pushing this beautiful nation of multiple islands on a course of disaster. He had seriously derailed the process of institution building towards a sustainable and robust democracy. He also vitiated the entire political ambience by virtually forcing all his serious political rivals in to exile or in prison. For this, he interfered with autonomy of judiciary, curtailed political and civil liberties of people. He even undermined professional integrity of civil service and police institutions, by routinely interfering in its processes, used entire might of state to intimidate actual or even potential dissenters. He undermined even integrity of parliament by frequently changing and virtually subverting its procedures to pre-empt any No-Confidence Motion or pushing through parliamentary approval for Free Trade treaty with China in November 2017 with barely 1/3rd members present and voting. It was extremely sad and sorry situation for democracy in the country. 

        He had started antagonising longstanding friends of people of Maldives to bolster his own political fortunes. Maldivians have been practising a liberal version of Islam with their language Divehi having Sanskritic origins. He sought to introduce more orthodox and  somewhat Arabic version of stricter Islam. Worst was his efforts to walk into close embrace of China, ignoring even security sensitivities of India and violating even Indo-Maldivian Friendship Treaty.  He was risking long years of relations of trust and goodwill with India that had been assiduously built by President Gayoom and continued by President Nasheed. We must complement the incumbent Indian Foreign Secretary Mr Vijay Gokhale who remained unfazed, even under the gravest provocations and the Indian Government  continued to assure all concerned in Maldives of  its neutrality in internal matters of the archipelago nation. It must have been little disappointing for certain sections of opposition MDP, who kept demanding an Indian intervention. Right thinking Maldivians would  certainly realise now that unlike the extra regional powers, who may just use Maldives for their strategic and military goals, India has a long term and abiding stake in political stability and well being of people of Maldives. 

       President elect Ibu Solih has a difficult task at hand. Unless he  demonstrates mature leadership qualities, the process of democracy building may lose direction once again. He has to rise over personal aspirations and political differences to build rule of law, which  must be asserted in no uncertain terms. There is no space for condoning heinous crime but optimum degree of  political reconciliation and accommodation can help the process of transition towards an endurable democracy. Maldives would need at least another decade or more to stabilise its democracy and build a governance structure that is more suited to its own requirements.  Further, it is a small country with a somewhat egalitarian structure. It is more important  for leaders in the Government to preserve and improve upon the quality of social solidarity  and avoid temptation of royalty like trappings of power.  In such a society, it is difficult to conceal things and hence individual credibility of leaders become important. At the same time, there is need to reduce coercive character of Maldivian police systems. There is negligible amount of crime among Maldivian people. Probably they can take a leaf or two out of the concept of community policing to reduce the very space for crime instead of being used by the incumbents in the government for  political purposes. May be creation of strong inbuilt incentives and deterrents for any deviation from rule of law can help. Simultaneous measures to bolster both autonomy and integrity of judicial processes can  help prevent recurrence  of mistakes committed during President Yameen's era. Issues at stake would probably be building an amiable ambience of trust and goodwill between the ruling party and the opposition to avoid individual or political confrontation. 

      India and Maldives have shared a strong bond of history, culture and ethnicity. Successive Heads of the  Government in Maldives have always been receptive to India's diplomatic and security concerns, barring a brief aberration by President Yameen, who too occasionally reiterated the same stance at least in words. During its early days of pro-democracy movement in Gayoom  era, MDP leaders often used to visit Delhi and engaged  members of both media and  civil society groups. This was the time when Government of India was believed to avoiding any contact with them, given strong relationship with the then President Gayoom. During one of the interactions at India International Centre, the then leader of MDP- Mohammad Latheef - had made it categorical that even though the Government of India was avoiding them, while other non-democracies were willing to engage, MDP was avoiding  the latter as they had nothing to offer  a pro-democracy movement. He maintained that their group was fighting for democracy and their inspiration was Mahatma Gandhi. Hence,  they would wait for Government of India to engage and listen to them, instead  of having a truck with non-democracies in the region or beyond. 

       Political movements can have such liberty but not a state, which has to deal with every entity that can promote or help its interest. Maldives as a nation may have to  deal with all concerned who can help its national goals but pragmatism would always require a closer engagement with India and accommodation of the latter's sensitivities and concerns. From the Indian side, the government has always adhered to the norms of political correctness, the problem area has been a few corporate ventures entering the archipelago nation by virtue of bi-lateral diplomatic goodwill. It would be imperative that only those capable of adhering to the highest possible global norms of professionalism get such access. There is no doubt that popular verdict in Maldives has opened up new avenues for both promotion of democratic good governance and stronger Indo-Maldivian bilateral ties. It is time that all concerned join together to build robust institutions that are autonomous and yet uphold principles of 'Rule of Law' and 'Democracy'. India has a moral responsibility to help in the process of building such institutions wherever needed without being partisan or intrusive in any manner.   President elect Ibu Solih has a huge responsibility and heavy expectations to handle. Let us hope and wish that he emerges successful. Maldives can potentially emerge as a shining example of victory of  democracy in our times.

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