The on-going political crisis in the  small Indian Ocean island nation of Maldives which erupted on February 7 (Tuesday)  and led to the ouster of former President Mohamed Nasheed and the swearing in of the Vice President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik is proving to be a complex challenge to India’s regional  profile in the extended South Asian region.

Maldives which comprises about 1200 scattered islands in the Indian Ocean is located in  the Lacadive Sea and is about  400 kilometres  south-west of  India. It was initially a  Dutch protectorate in the 17th century and later became a British island territory and finally achieved independence in 1965. Political stability was established by former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who ruled for three decades –  in a firm and autocratic manner - and he was finally unseated in 2008 by President Nasheed through the first free and fair democratic elections.

Acclaimed as liberal democrat who sought to bring about many rapid changes in the socio-religious-political structure of a  100 percent Islamic nation of   about 400,000 citizens , it  is evident that Mr. Nasheed created more opponents than he had imagined in the last three years.  The current situation has  gone through a turbulent five days and  this has added to India’s discomfiture. It was initially announced that  in the face of growing opposition and protests to his rule, Mr. Nasheed had decided to hand over power to his Vice President Waheed – as per the Constitution (Maldives has opted for a US  modeled executive Presidential form  of governance ).  A  day later Mr. Nasheed claimed that he was forced to resign – at gun-point – and hence this was a ‘coup’. In the intervening period, Delhi had already welcomed  the transition to a new President  and violent clashes broke out between the Nasheed supporters and  his opponents.

In the last two days Delhi has dispatched a special envoy to visit the island state and assuage the growing tension. Concurrently the UN and the USA have also sent their representatives with UK as the head of the  Commonwealth  also   conducting an investigation into the ouster of President Nasheed. Thus India’s primacy in the region is now being diluted and this is one of the many challenges that Delhi will have to contend with.

The prevailing political situation in Male is tense with Mr. Nasheed calling for fresh elections while an interim government headed by the Speaker of the Majlis is in place. However the new President Waheed  maintains that he is the man in charge now – as per the Constitution – and that he would seek to form a national government with the help of all the main political parties. In this regard, the role of the former President Gayoom is critical and the latter – who is no ally of Mr. Nasheed  has welcomed the new Waheed government and denied that he had any role in the Nasheed ouster.

What is being contested, political power apart -  is the kind of  socio-religious-political  model that would be adopted by a nation that is 100 percent  Islamic in the transition to participative democratic rule. Here the small demography of Maldives (400,000)  has some instructive lessons for other parts of the world that are similarly poised – from the Arab Spring to parts of South and South-East Asia.  Dependent on tourism and fishing in the main, Maldives is a relatively affluent South Asian nation and has a GDP of  US $ 2 billion and a per capita of about $ 6,000 per annum.

The younger generation in Maldives – concentrated mainly in the capital Male and Addu ( where the SAARC Summit was held in November 2011 )  are yearning for change and relate to the rhythms of  modernity and the new ‘networked’ global community. However the conservative religious elements in Maldives who have  been influenced by the events before and after 9/11 and the spread of Islamic radicalism as derived from the extreme Sunni-Wahabi-Salafist  represent the opposition to the Nasheed vision  for Maldives.

The conservative Islamist faction in Maldives – which had been trained in seminaries in Pakistan and drew inspiration from the ideology of both the al-Qaeda and the Saudi supported version of political Islam shared a plank with the anti-Gayoom movement in the 1990’s  and in many ways this was the Faustian bargain that  Mr. Nasheed’s MDP (Maldivian Democratic Party )  made with the religious right – the Adaalath party - to form his government. Concurrently the many changes that the Nasheed regime sought to introduce were resisted by the old guard – the Gayoom protégé who had enjoyed unfettered power for 30 years.

The trigger for the current turbulence was an attempt by Mr. Nasheed to impose his will over the judiciary – which in turn was sympathetic to the religious right in certain cases related to  radicalism and terrorism.  The next few days will be fraught with political uncertainty as Male seeks to find its own political accommodation. The presence of the UN and the US in the island nation may enable India to  contribute to the speedy resolution of   a complex  regional issue – but its implications are significant.

The Maldives has a very strategic geographical location in the Indian Ocean and a stable, liberal democratic dispensation with strong ties to Delhi will be in India’s abiding  interest. China and Pakistan have their own relevance in the calculus of Maldives and the last thing India wants  is a politically empowered and   radicalized Islamic entity that may nurture ideologies and groups that are inimical to Indian interests. The last time this happened was in Afghanistan and India had to go through the ignominy of  December 1999 – and the Kandahar hijacking episode.

India must  not be an over-bearing and insensitive big brother in the region – but the run-up to the Nasheed ouster and why  Indian diplomats were unable to either anticipate or  preempt the current impasse merits detailed review by the political apex in Delhi. Could India have been more astutely pro-active and helped avoid the Maldives muddle?