As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh prepares to travel to Washington to participate in a global financial crisis meeting called by outgoing US President George W. Bush on 15 November, he could spare a thought for the fast changing strategic situation in India’s neighbourhood.
Mohamed Nasheed, 41, fondly known as “Anni” to his friends around the world, defeated Maldivian leader Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in a presidential run-off on Wednesday. Asia’s longest serving dictator, Gayoom, who has ruled the island nation for 30 long years with a little bit of help from India, has finally been ousted by the democratic opposition.
Nasheed’s victory is the result of the first democratically held election in the Maldives in decades. In New Delhi a few months ago, Nasheed met foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon and other members of the establishment, but the prevailing sense of cynicism in Delhi (how can the young man overcome the muscle and money that is at Gayoom’s command?) never really allowed the foreign office to fully put its weight behind a man who fought for his country’s future on a secular plank.
Gayoom did everything he could to win—including stoking the fear that Islamic fundamentalists would take over the Indian Ocean archipelago. He sent close aides to remind India that Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister had crushed an attempt to overthrow him in 1988. He rested secure in the belief that it takes a revolution to change the way nations think—and he thought Nasheed would never be able to mount a revolution.
But the unthinkable happened in the Maldives, a holiday hot spot for the rich and famous.
The island’s democratic revolution has sparked a leap of faith. It is the perfect message the Prime Minister could carry with him to the US, one that symbolizes the Asia of the coming years.
To be sure, the US summit has been called with the global financial crisis in mind. At last week’s Asia-Europe Meeting (Asem) in Beijing, the major Asian powers were gripped by a collective fear that their own economies would be badly hit as a result of their exposure to the West. The South Koreans were especially jittery as their markets tanked. Singh admitted he was worried about the impact on India and even China, whose socio-economic indicators comparatively seem in the pink of health, looked a bit nervous.
As for the Europeans, French President Nicolas Sarkozy seemed somewhat imperious as he pronounced, “We have done as much as we could.” Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi swaggered in late for the meeting. It was left to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose government has pumped in billions of euros recently into its own faltering companies, to put her head together with Asia’s leaders and debate what is to be done.
The answers may not be forthcoming immediately, especially since the US, with 30% of the world’s gross domestic product, is distracted with its own elections. Significantly, at Asem, few were ready to openly criticize the Americans for the manner in which it had bailed out the toxic assets of a few financial companies at home. These Asem nations know that, in the end, the US may have to rescue their own economies too.
There was another underlying thread at Asem, a sort of private glee, that an injured US might now become much more amenable to taking the rest of the world along—rather than bully its way through the global stage as the only remaining superpower.
Still, all said and done, the Beijing Asem summit will go down as the moment when the baton of leading global growth passed to Asia. Just as the US bailed out East Asia in the 1998 financial crisis, the current mess could create far greater and more direct linkages between Washington and Asian nations.
For a start, the leaders of China, Japan and India seemed to talk much more intimately at the Beijing summit. Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao stepped out of the receiving line to welcome Singh—who had asked to make an intervention on the financial crisis, although he was not scheduled to do so—with a double handshake.
The Indian prime minister had clearly decided, too, that it was time to move on. Notwithstanding the diplomatic spat over China’s attempt at blocking the Indo-US nuclear deal at the Nuclear Suppliers Group in Vienna in September, Singh’s handlers were ecstatic about his meetings in Beijing.
Meanwhile, the financial crisis could still provide the final irony, pushing the three largest Asian economies—Japan, China and India—to work together, rather than against each other. At least some signs point to this: Singh received the call from Bush in Tokyo, where he discussed the crisis with Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso. Singh did more of the same with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing.
The time is ripening for the Big Three to signal the rise of a new Asia in Washington next month.
Even the new Maldives would agree.
Jyoti Malhotra is Mint’s diplomatic affairs editor and writes every week on the intersection of foreign policy, trade and politics. Comments are welcome at email@example.com
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