New Delhi: Whilst for any policy mess the incumbent government and the minister concerned must take blame, the Maldives-GMR crisis is a lot more complicated for reflexive finger-pointing at UPA-2, although the new foreign minister, Salman Khursheed, could have shown less haste in coming to the defence of the Indian company which does not enjoy a great reputation at home. Insofar as power projection and leveraging are concerned, India is no better placed than when it failed with the IPKF intervention in Sri Lanka, and it is by far in a worse position than when it took fast and sensible steps to foil a coup in Maldives a year later, in 1988.

A rising power is synonymous with a growing business. A growing business needs maximum efforts and more and more investments to expand. In business, if you don’t grow and expand, you are dead. Business does not suffer plateaus. The same is the case with a nation’s rise. A state cannot be rising and still quest to be a status quo power. Those two things do not go together. Power knows no vacuum. This is true of domestic and international power politics. If one nation does not exercise clout commensurate with its cumulative national strength, then another state will make up for the shortfall, naturally hurting the interests of the first nation. A big nation such as China which knows India’s weaknesses regarding power projection and leveraging takes due advantage with its string of pearls and other strategies. It has inserted itself in a far-reaching way in Sri Lanka and is taking the correct steps in Maldives, the real cause of India’s flare-up with Male. But even an inferior power such as Pakistan is capitalizing on India’s known foreign-military policy fumblings, and is right behind China in both Sri Lanka and Maldives.

So the root of the problem lies with India, which is trapped on one hand by its anachronistic policy of non-alignment, and on the other by its distaste for foreign interventions, especially after the IPKF disaster. To get over this critical hump, India must revisit the IPKF controversy, learn from the blunders, and reach internal political consensus that for the country to rise to its full potential and greatness, it must succeed in power projection and leveraging. Not having political consensus killed the IPKF initiative (although it had its own problems of conception, implementation and absent political direction and objectives), and India cannot afford a second blunder. In its risen position, India must all the more not be seen to be failing.

Of all the Indian prime ministers, Indira Gandhi was most adept at power projection. How she wrought India into a regional power with and after the Bangladesh War is well-known, but she was remarkable too for balancing power in the neighbourhood. For years aided by the brilliant (late) G.Parthasarthy, Indian “good offices” were available for mediating the Sri Lankan ethnic crisis. There were missteps such as the military training of LTTE but Sri Lanka was overall more manageable under Mrs Gandhi than ever later. There is a lot of learning to be had from that period.

To be sure, the current Maldives’ imbroglio is different from the 1988 coup, and the IPKF intervention of 1987 is altogether in another league. But the common thread that binds them to the present is power projection and leveraging. Power projection and leveraging test the skills, depth, endurance and soundness of a great power, and indeed define greatness or its absence. You needn’t project power everywhere and every time to be taken seriously, but the few times you do must be spectacularly successful. It may even be once in a decade. If the IPKF experiment had been an unbounded success, India wouldn’t be expending energies fobbing off China from South Asia and the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.

To a limited extent, commerce does follow the flag, but the flag must fly powerfully for that, and for the right kind of commerce, of which GMR is not the best advertisement. As of now, GMR looks a lost case in Maldives, and India must desist from rubbing the small atoll’s proud sovereign nose into the ground. There are other ways of keeping inimical foreign powers out, and India has considerable military strength and knows what to do in that direction. The important thing is to get the reformists to power again in next year’s elections in Maldives, and India must pull out all the stops. In the longer term, India must have to reconsider the abandoned options of power projection and leveraging. History is full of examples of imperial overreach. But modesty, inwardness and non-confidence also count as sins in power politics.

Expand, or perish.