Mohamed Nasheed, 45, the first democratically elected president of the Maldives who was ousted in a coup in the early hours of February 7, has been in Delhi for the last few days. He is lobbying the Indian government for support to hold elections in the Maldives by the end of 2012, instead of 2013 when elections are due anyway. He tells Jyoti Malhotra that India should take a leadership role in the Indian Ocean
There has been a lot of confusion leading to the circumstances of your resignation on February 7. Was it really a coup? What happened?
Of course, it was a coup. I resigned because I wanted to avoid bloodshed. What happened was that in the evening of February 6, two battalions of riot police — without command and control — revolted, and attacked my party supporters. Then, they went to the military headquarters (MHQ) and demanded my resignation and that of the chief of police. I asked the chief of police if he wanted to use the military to detain them, and he said yes. However, when nothing happened till 11 pm, I went to the MHQ and found the place was almost deserted, with only 200 or so soldiers, not willing to do anything. I was told the rest were on leave.
One of the first things I did, when I reached the MHQ, was to get the keys of the armoury from the generals there. I told them I was their commander-in-chief. Around 7:30 am on February 7, I found that several soldiers had joined the mob outside, while I was stuck inside the MHQ. It was a very tricky situation. The generals told me to resign, otherwise they said they would use lethal weapons on me. I told them I would only resign in my presidential office. So, they took me there, gave me a piece of paper and made me write my resignation on it. That’s when I announced that I had resigned. I was told I had to stay in the office incommunicado for three days, but that evening I slipped out, came home and collapsed.
Did India or the Indian high commissioner in the Maldives, D M Mulay, know what was happening? Did you warn him?
Anyone who cared to know what was going on would have known.
Didn’t you speak to him?
I had one conversation with him, but he was in touch with my national security adviser. My adviser later told me that when he told Mulay what you were going through in the MHQ, he asked him for a note.
When you came to power in 2008, India welcomed the new democratic dispensation in the Maldives? Why do you think India changed its mind?
India has been a huge source of support for me and my government. They gave us about $300-400 million annually. In fact, soon after I was elected, India gave a bridging loan of $100 million, half of which we used to pay salaries, as the treasury had been emptied by the former dictator, Maumoon Gayoom. I understand the difficulties that India has when dealing with its neighbours, that it needs to recognise those who have the keys to the armoury and the treasury. But what we would like to impress upon India is that we are a friend who it can always rely upon, in the Indian Ocean.
India’s foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai made two visits to the Maldives in the wake of the coup, where he met all the political parties. He met you, too. What happened?
I understand that all the political parties told the foreign secretary that they would agree to hold elections in the Maldives before the end of 2012. The foreign secretary told me clearly that he had got such an understanding from the political parties.
Well, clearly, the new government wants to backtrack from the agreement. But we believe that they had an agreement with the Indian government and they must honour it.
Are you optimistic the Indian government will push the new government to honour that understanding?
I am always optimistic.
You have said publicly that China wanted to spend $1.2 billion to build houses in the Maldives, but you didn’t agree. Why?
We did not think it was in the stability and balance of the Indian Ocean to get such a large neighbour from so far away to invest such a large amount of money in the Maldives.
But you awarded contracts to several Indian companies, including GMR, to build the airport in Male?
India is much closer to us. Also, we believe that India should take a leadership role in the Indian Ocean.
Is it true that you allowed the Indian government to set up radar-tracking stations in the Maldivian atolls, and that one of these is only 200 miles away from the US base in Diego Garcia?
We had a framework agreement with India to assist each other in security matters. We want to continue along those lines. We need surveillance in the Indian Ocean — it is a huge ocean and we are hugely affected by piracy, drug-trafficking, etc, which constantly take place. We are a modest state with modest means. We agreed with India that there was a need for those tracking stations.
Do you believe the former dictator wields influence in the current dispensation of Mohammed Waheed Hassan?
Gayoom is back and he is a power. Waheed is just a facade. It is Gayoom who is running the show. He has more and more powers. Two of his children, Dunya and Ghassan, have found place in Waheed’s Cabinet. The Maldives is back under a dictatorship, let us make no mistake about it.
You were in the US recently, lobbying for support?
Yes, and the Americans believe that India must take the lead in the evolving Maldivian story, and we agree.
Is that why you are here?
India is the most important country. We are here not only to meet your senior leadership, but also the people. Whether or not my party, the Maldivian Democratic Party, is in power or not in the Maldives, we are your friends. We want to be a part not only of the economic rise of India, but also of the idea of India. You have to take us along with you. Just because India is a much richer country today doesn’t mean that you can leave us behind. We won’t secede from you.