Analysis: Can New Delhi Somehow Turn The Tide In Maldives?

Analysis: Can New Delhi Somehow Turn The Tide In Maldives?

The best course for India at this juncture is to keep its head down and work quietly to a plan in the adverse circumstances we have landed ourselves in

SNM AbdiUpdated: Monday, April 29, 2024, 09:54 PM IST
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Maldives Imbroglio | File Pic

For many a doubting Thomas in India’s diplomatic-security-political firmament who thought that Mohammed Muizzu’s appointment as Maldives’ President in November was nothing but a fluke, Muizzu’s People’s National Congress’ supermajority in the April 21 parliamentary elections must have come as a very big shock. The outcome of the parliamentary polls within months of the presidential election shows that the archipelago’s voters have overwhelmingly backed Muizzu-PNC’s “India Out” campaign not once but twice, and by inference are all for the island nation veering towards China.

What ordinary Maldivians today want is evident from the anti-India PNC wresting 66 out of 93 parliamentary seats and the pro-India Maldivian Democratic Party of former president Mohammed Ibrahim Solih, who openly pursued an “India First” foreign policy, slumping to just 12 seats in the parliament, called the Majlis. With independents and allies, Muizzu commands a mind-boggling 74 seats! And while Beijing has, in a sense, firmly planted its flag in our backyard, New Delhi has responded with complete silence; the External Affairs Ministry hasn’t said a single word about PNC-Muizzu’s stunning two-thirds majority, which is in essence a massive victory for China well inside India’s sphere of influence.

Muizzu has won successive elections — presidential and parliamentary — on the back of a campaign promising to erase India’s military, economic and political footprint and establishing closer ties with India’s geopolitical rival, China. The successive victories show that Muizzu’s stand resonates with voters who are on the same page as him and solidly back him.

The thumping wins also raise some very uncomfortable questions about us. Why can’t India, a superpower of 1.4 billion people, manage to keep Maldives’ half a million population — fewer heads than the number of voters in a Lok Sabha seat — happy and contented? Why does south Asia’s smallest democracy at our doorstep prefer China — a faraway nation it has no linguistic, cultural or historical connections with — to India? Essentially, why are we so unpopular and unwanted despite being the resident power?

In an earlier commentary I had explained that it was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government’s decision to force Yoga down the throats of Maldivians — who are overwhelmingly Muslim — that led to a series of events which culminated in India losing its toehold and China occupying that space. The Maldives is a prime example of the havoc that Bharatiya Janata Party-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh Hindu-first ideology is wreaking in India’s neighbourhood.

I had cited published reports which bared how in June 2022, the Indian High Commission in Male, on instructions from the Ministry of External Affairs, decided to celebrate International Yoga Day in a massive way. No one in Delhi thought that a yoga campaign in a 100% Muslim country would create a problem. Such was the lack of attention to detail when it came to dealing with India’s neighbourhood. On June 21, 2022, Reuters reported that “a crowd stormed a stadium” where the event was on; the report also said that the “protestors brandished placards claiming that yoga was against the tenets of Islam”. The “success” of this disruption laid the foundation for the “India Out” campaign for the 2023 election. It was also helped by the many incidents of Muslims being targeted in various states in India. Every single reported incident of an attack on Muslims in India eventually turned out to be ammunition for propaganda in Maldives.

Basically, the blind pursuit of Hindutva doctrine and goals cost us the Maldives, dealing a big blow to India’s strategic interests in the Indian Ocean Region where China’s shadow is lengthening by the day.

It seems that New Delhi has learnt some lessons and is in damage control mode vis-à-vis the Maldives. After Muizzu unilaterally announced a March 15 deadline to start withdrawing Indian military personnel operating two India-gifted Dhruva helicopters and a Dornier aircraft, India pulled back the first batch of defence forces well before the deadline to demonstrate our newfound respect and goodwill towards the small neighbour and is committed to removing all the 88 troops by May 10 to fully honour Muizzu’s unrelenting demand.

I think it’s now time for India to lie low in the Maldives. The best course for India at this juncture is to keep its head down and work quietly to a plan in the adverse circumstances we have landed ourselves in. Luckily, India made big investments, especially in infrastructure, during the five years of Solih’s presidency from 2018. For instance, no sooner had Male adopted an “India First” policy and walked out on China, than New Delhi approved a $1.4 billion financial package to help loan paybacks to Beijing. We invested in the Thilamale sea bridge, drinking water and drainage schemes, schools and hospital buildings including a cancer hospital, sports stadiums in several islands, a new port, and an airport upgrade. India should now tend to the big and small projects that were launched when the going was good. It must keep allocating funds generously for resource-hungry Maldives. New Delhi’s chequebook diplomacy will keep paying good dividends if we tread carefully and don’t pick unnecessary fights.

But there are also major areas of concern. The five or six Turkey-made Bayraktar-TB2 drones that Muizzu has just purchased for a whopping $37 million, ostensibly to meet the Maldives’ own defence requirements and to monitor its territorial waters and vast Exclusive Economic Zone, can easily map India’s defence assets in Minicoy, possibly in Kochi (Southern Naval Command and Shipyard) and Thiruvananthapuram (Southern Air Command), and even installations in Tamil Nadu. Similarly, Maldivian drones can target airstrips in Agalega Island developed jointly by Mauritius and India, and six other projects under Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) maritime initiative. Hence it’s absolutely necessary for Male and New Delhi to hold heart-to-heart talks without wasting any time, to make the best of a bad situation.

The author is an independent, Pegasused reporter and commentator on foreign policy and domestic politics

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