With President Abdulla Yameen conceding defeat in the recent general elections in the Indian Ocean island-state of Maldives, the decks have been cleared for joint opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih to assume office and redeem his promise to restore true democracy.
This had looked impossible when earlier in the year Yameen had jailed many opposition leaders, promulgated a state of emergency and put behind bars two of the five Supreme Court judges in a blatant show of authoritarianism. Under his leadership, Yameen had pushed Maldives into China’s orbit and distanced his country from India which had a traditionally strong friendship with it. For New Delhi particularly, Yameen’s defeat portends an unusually strong restoration of ties which brings in a whiff of fresh air in this crucial country which is an arena of India-China rivalry with stakes in naval supremacy.
Speculation has understandably begun on what future course Maldives would take. It would be foolhardy to expect China to surrender its over-riding influence and adopt a low profile in Maldives. It has gone too far out to cave in meekly. Indeed, China has an advantage in having many infrastructure projects in the pipeline for which the upcoming regime would have to depend on it. Hopefully, however, the stranglehold that China was in the process of establishing over the Maldivian economy can now be loosened somewhat and the scary debt trap that the country was heading for could well be averted, though it would be presumptuous to assume an about-turn.
There is a parallel with Nepal where a left-of-centre government now holds sway after decades of strong Indian connection. While the new Nepalese regime is trying to keep up with India, it is in many respects leaning on China. India has always touted that Nepal cannot do without it since it is landlocked but now Nepal is looking at ways to connect with the sea through China in a veiled defiance of India. At the same time, it is seeking to extract maximum mileage from India, leveraging the fact that it now has the Chinese option in the event of Indian intransigence. India would like to ensure that Maldivian flirtation with China may not reach Nepalese levels and that India’s primacy is restored to its pre-Yameen levels.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s untrammelled power in Beijing rests a great deal on how he has, through moves like the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) built up China as a virtual super power with strategic influence especially in the Indian Ocean hinterland countries. It is too early to speculate that Xi Jinping’s position would be under threat but the seeming setback in Maldives would be a test of Chinese diplomacy’s ability to protect and nurture its influence.
There is no doubt that the Americans are building up India as a counterpoise to China in Asia and the Pacific and it is inconceivable that the Asian powers would not come in conflict. In that context, it would be interesting to see how India’s interests in Maldives are propped up by the US and the West in general to contain Chinese influence and neo-colonial designs.
It would indeed be in India’s interest to work in tandem with the US and the European Union to help Maldives navigate the new challenges. Expectedly, multilateral lending institutions could be tapped to counter BRI in the provision of development finance. In retrospect, it is good that India acted with circumspection in dealing with Yameen despite some hawks having egged her on to intervene militarily in Maldives. Today, India reaps the benefits of not taking any knee-jerk step and respecting Maldivian sovereignty.
The fund of goodwill that New Delhi has earned with people at large in Male would predictably come in handy when a new government takes charge there. But India would have to tread warily. It can ill afford to be seen as behaving bossy in pursuit of appropriating a stellar role. In that respect, India has lessons to learn from the Nepal experience where the man in the street came to despise India for its Big Brotherly, almost condescending attitude which clearly hurt the people’s pride forcing them to go for Left rule as an act of defiance.
Sri Lanka, too, has been quick to defend its self-respect, keeping India at bay but taking care to balance India and China in the battle for supremacy. It is poetic justice that the man who subverted democracy in Maldives and put the country at the virtual command of the Chinese government while jettisoning India which had been the tiny Indian Ocean country’s trusted friend, is at the crossroads today, all set to pay for betraying his countrymen’s trust. Yameen has well and truly been rejected by the people for the authoritarian way in which he ruled his country despite all the baits that he offered and the threats he held out to various institutions and individuals. A new chapter will begin for Maldives with Solih assuming the presidency. The country would do well to push a strong developmental agenda that is rooted in the soil and is responsive to people’s aspirations.
How well Solih is able to steer the country without Chinese spoon-feeding would determine the future of Maldivian democracy. This is indeed a time for Maldivians to reflect and introspect while moving forward. It is thanks to the people that Maldives has pulled back from the brink because too heavy a dependence on Yameen would have bartered Maldives’ interests to China, Saudi Arabia and perhaps Pakistan in the long run.
Kamlendra Kanwar is a political commentator and columnist. He has authored four books.