Abdullah Yameen’s shock defeat in Sunday’s presidential elections in the Maldives has been enthusiastically welcomed in India. The Modi government’s ties with Male took a nosedive during Yameen’s tenure as he courted China and snubbed India. The regional rivalry between Asia’s two largest countries is now being played out in the Indian Ocean, where China is hoping to make inroads in what India considers its backyard. Yameen may have been ousted and given India time to regain some lost ground, but this does not mean that China is out.
Yameen came to power in 2013 after a disputed election. Once he took office, he turned out to be a tough leader unable to tolerate dissent. He cracked down on the opposition at home, all dissenters were put behind bars, including the chief justice who dismissed the terror charges brought against Mohammed Nasheed the leader of the Maldivian Democratic Party. He jailed his former vice president, two former defence ministers as well as former strongman and his half brother Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. He warmed up to China and signed a free trade agreement with Beijing last December. China was given major infrastructure projects and Chinese tourists flooded the island archipelago.
Yameen ran his presidential campaign on economic development and restoring the purity of Islam in the island state. Besides China which poured millions of dollars for projects in the Maldives, Saudi Arabia and its Wahabi clerics had a solid footing in the island. Yameen saw himself as the defender of Islam in the country.
In fact, ahead of the presidential elections, the government ordered the destruction of a beautiful sculpture which was put up in one of the high-end resort islands. Artist Jason deCaires Taylor, had sculpted 30 life-size figures with some standing at tidal level, while others were beneath the ocean. The police said that the artwork of ”human form” was not allowed under Islamic law.
It was widely believed that the elections would be rigged in favour of the president. Credit has to go to Abdullah Yameen for respecting the wishes of the voters and graciously conceding defeat. No one expected Yameen to respect the popular mandate. His past action had not prepared either his critics at home or abroad for bowing out without a fight. The US government had warned Maldives that any attempt to manipulate the elections would lead to targeted sanctions against the ruling regime. The EU, too, made a similar statement before for the Sunday’s presidential polls.
India was ready with its congratulatory message even before the final results were made official. Many analysts here believe that with the exit of Yameen, China’s footprints in the strategically located Indian Ocean archipelago will recede. Mohamed Solih, the candidate for the united opposition who trounced Yameen, had already announced that all Chinese projects would be up for audit. Nasheed and other leaders have long complained about the lack of transparency in the deals signed by the Yameen government with China. The fear that countries who have warmly welcomed President Xi Jinping’s belt and road initiative as well as the maritime connectivity he has championed, could fall into a massive debt trap has prompted the need to review the agreements.
However, it is too early to celebrate. A pro-China president may have been defeated, and his ouster is certainly a setback for Beijing. This does not mean that China will pack up and leave. Far from it. At best, Delhi has got some breathing space to play its cards right. China is already in and has enormous staying power, backed by solid financial resources. India will have to live with the fact that China will continue to be a major presence in the Maldives as well as other neighbouring countries in the Indian Ocean region, and plan its strategy keeping this in mind.
Delhi must remember the lesson from Sri Lanka. When former president Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated in Sri Lanka’s presidential polls in 2015, India, US and the West were delighted. President Sirisena and Ranil Wickremasinghe were both expected to reverse many of the Chinese backed projects signed by Rajapaksa. One of the mega projects was the Colombo Port Project, which was much criticised for flouting environmental rules. However, the Sirisena and Wickremasinghe government finally okayed it. It is partly to be built on land reclaimed from the sea, and the first unit at the cost of $1.4 billion is to be ready by the end of this year. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe has said the country will attract $1 billion of investment after completion of the first site of a China-funded massive port city project. The mammoth project when completed in 2041 is to cost USD 15 billion.
So India has to wait and watch how the politics on the ground develops in the Maldives. China is not a closed chapter. The new president Mohamed Solih is an unknown figure asked to contest because Nasheed was disallowed because of the charges against him. Will Nasheed be the backseat driver in the new administration? How it will all pan out will have to be watched. China will also cultivate the new government and may win over Solih. Time to wait and watch though India should now ensure it is not left in the cold.
Seema Guha is a senior journalist with expertise in foreign policy and international affairs.