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OpinionsWhy Maldives may rework India relations after Majlis polls

Why Maldives may rework India relations after Majlis polls

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By N Sathiya Moorthy

Strategic thinkers in the two nations are keeping their fingers crossed, but are still hopeful, over the future of Maldives-India bilateral relations after parliamentary polls in the two countries, especially the former. That is to say, the negativity of the past months, particularly emanating from the Maldivian side, may slowly be replaced by positivity and even more objectivity in the coming weeks, months and years.

The mostly unnoticed, yet quietly efficient posturing in the whole melee was the official position, as ‘stated' by India. Rather, there was no official response to any of the negative observations and governmental initiatives that have had the potential to ‘kill' bilateral relations for good. If anything, India has responded only with abundant positivity through deeds, still abiding by the nation's value-based ‘Neighbourhood First' ethos to which Prime Minister Narendra Modi breathes in fresh air through words and deeds — especially in the case of a ‘smaller neighbour' Maldives.

It was thus that the Modi government took President-elect Mohamed Muizzu's reiteration of his poll-campaign ‘commitment' on India withdrawing military pilots and technicians manning the three flying platforms that were gifts from India through the past decade. Muizzu has since announced that the second of three batches of Indian personnel have since left Maldives as agreed upon. The third one is due to depart in May, all of them being replaced by civilian ‘technical personnel'.

The Indian acceptance of the Muizzu diktat with grace and dignity did ensure that the new President had nothing to fear from India or be suspicious about the larger Ocean neighbour in the north. Muizzu's estranged political mentor and jailed former President Abdulla Yameen had injected those unnecessary and unjustified fears and suspicions into the bilateral discourse with his ‘India Military Out' request in the closing months of his presidency in 2018.

Barring India's regional adversary China's unilateral declaration that they would defend Maldives' ‘sovereignty and territorial integrity in case of external threats', there was nothing to suggest that either India or any other nation or force was threatening the archipelago-nation at the time — or, even in the past six years since Yameen lost the presidential polls of 2018. Yet, after losing power and leaving without a cause to take on the successor government of President Ibrahim Solih of the rival Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), Yameen launched the by-now-infamous ‘India Out/India Military Out' campaign, often confusing his goal and purpose.

In the end, the protests withered away, yet, Yameen's coinage became a political burden for his estranged aide Muizzu, who needed some handle to off-load the same, once elected to power. In more ways than one, New Delhi's quiet acceptance of Muizzu's election (unlike perceived an propagated by some in Maldives) and also the ready acceptance of his request for withdrawing the military personnel engaged exclusively in urgent evacuations during medical emergencies and natural disasters showed how matured nations and governments handle situations of the kind — without allowing it to go out of hands.

All of it was only a continuation of the way India rushed aid to lil' Maldivian brother at the height of the unprecedented world-wide Covid crisis — before and after — when New Delhi pumped massive funds into infrastructure and massive development projects in the country. Long before the present, India, in another era had rushed the Indian Air Force (IAF) to thwart a mercenary-led coup-bid in 1988 (‘Operation Cactus'), and the Navy to for rescue, relief and restoration work after the 2004 ‘Asian tsunami) and large quantities of drinking and otherwise potable water when the sole desalination plant in capital Male was gutted in an accident a decade later.

The latest one in this unending series is the way India has increased the import quota for essentials, including rice, wheat and flour, and also aggregates and river sand for construction, especially of more resorts that are the mainstay of Maldivian . Maldives' Foreign Minister Moosa Zameer posted his thanks to Indian counterpart S Jaishankar, who in turn swore by the commitment to stand by the southern neighbour.

Not much positivity

Barring a solitary occasion when news reports indicated Maldives hoped to approach India for rescheduling pending loans, President Muizzu has not personally exuded much of positivity in his approach and attitude towards India. On that one occasion, he said India was always a reliable friend of his country – or, words to that effect.  On most other occasions, Muizzu targeted India from a negative platform, at times without any pressing situation that he as the elected President of an ancient civilization-state should address.

According to some reports, it followed the huge embarrassment that his government faced after three of his deputy ministers, in their early days in office, criticised India and PM Modi after the latter visited tourist resorts in Lakshadweep, to promote and tourism in the island-chain, not far away from Maldivian coast. Both before and after this episode, which involved the suspension of the three errant ministers and the consequent end of the ‘Boycott Maldives' call in India that had cost Maldivian tourism in the early days, President Muizzu seems to be handling all verbal responses on the India front exclusively by himself.

It is still a mixed bag, normally not associated with presidential posturing unless otherwise intended that way. In the absence of any official Indian position to react, what passed for Muizzu's off-hand comments should have fallen into the category of ‘unwarranted provocation'. But India did not react. Given the immediate situation on hand, there are reasons to believe that at least some of Muizzu's comments were in reaction to unfounded international media summations.

For instance, there was one that claimed that India setting up a naval air base in Minicoy Island, closer to Maldives, was aimed at targeting that nation. Some media analysts claimed that India did it only after the Muizzu government fast-tracked geo-political, geo-economic and geo-strategic proximity to China, New

Delhi's historic adversary. Common sense dictates that Minicoy-kind of bases cannot be set up in weeks and months, and not certainly after Muizzu became President in November last year.

For those that might assume too much, his candidacy was announced literally at the very last minute only two months earlier and had taken even Yameen, his political boss of the time, by surprise. India could not have been able to guess the outcome of the presidential poll to conclude that Muizzu, or even Yameen, who was disqualified through and through, could be elected president.

Anyway, nations, especially larger nations like India with multiple political, economic and strategic interests and threats do not take decisions of the kind with one leader or presidency in mind. The Minicoy base, if at all, flowed from unprecedented and often provocative Chinese expansionism in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) that affected and impacted India. Maldives does not fit into such calculus on its own, yes, not even as a future ally of China — though collateral damage in times of a real war on all ‘participating nations' could become unavoidable even for those that had not intended to be one.

Non-disclosure

It is here, President Muizzu's off-again-on-again statements and initiatives on the India front assume significance, as much for Maldives and Maldivians as for bilateral relations with India, regional security, peace and prosperity. If his demand for India taking back its military personnel, even if engaged in humanitarian assistance at invitation, was a stand-alone affair up to a point, his observation that the ‘Indian Ocean is for all… we may be small but that does not give anyone licence to bully us' — made on his return from his maiden state visit, to China, were more than loaded.

It was the kind of language Chinese academics and service personnel pursuing strategic studies had made about/against India, and no government had repeated it. Here, there was a Head of State and Government, a democratically-elected President was saying it all, as if he were reading it out from someone else's script. The diplomatic import of the same was / is much more than the real words and their literary meaning.

In terms of actions and decisions, Muizzu seemed bent on cutting off the nation's India connections, by declaring that they would import all essentials from distant Türkiye, which even in normal times was costlier and unaffordable when the Houthi attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea area shot up shipping and insurance costs, owing to an inevitable de-tour. The same may apply to Muizzu procuring Türkiye-made drones at $34-million to ‘scan our waters ourselves', replacing the free service by the India-gifted Dornier aircraft with immediate effect.

The Muizzu government claimed that ‘some of them are gifts from Türkiye', signaling the personal rapport the President had with his counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

Already, two Türkiyish drones are operational in Maldives, and the government has refused to share details with Parliament, of the Majlis, after promising to do so on the government's overseas agreements, past, present and future. The same applies to the 20-plus agreements that the Muizzu leadership signed during his China visit in January, when he also met President Xi Jinping — as many of them have ‘strategic importance', the reason that the government has cited for non-disclosure.

Stand-alone relation, but…

From time-to-time during his high-pitched campaigning often targeting the MDP rival and taking broad-sides at estranged boss Yameen, Muizzu as the president of the latter's one-time PPM-PNC combine, has sought to indicate that from his perspective, all was well with the nation's India relations. He wants to make people believe that it was a stand-alone relation, and New Delhi should not bother about his decision to invite arch-rival China to strategically-sensitive projects alongside development works — which alone predecessor Solih too was indulging in, even in the last fortnight before the presidential polls last year.

These include non-extension of joint oceanographic survey by India at the end of a three-year term in June and providing berth facilities for a controversial Chinese ‘research vessel', or a ‘spy ship' that New Delhi ensured that common neighbour did not indulge in for a third time in as many years. Then, there is a more recent agreement for China to develop a fruits-and-vegetables farm on 200 hectares of reclamation land, if only to ensure ‘self-sufficiency'.

That the Chinese farm will be coming not far away from the India-funded Maldivian Coast Guard jetty on Uthuru Thila-Falhu (UTF) Island notwithstanding, there is no clarity if attaining ‘self-sufficiency' by curbing fruits-and-vegetables imports from India would not hit local farmers whose produce find their way to the Male market.

The election to the 93-member Parliament, up from 87 in the outgoing one, is yet a tough fight for Muizzu, at times tougher than the presidential polls that he won last year. His six-month rule has been full of ups and downs, both on the domestic and foreign policy fronts. His avoidable provocation to long-time friend India and over-dependence on China that has the potential to drag the nation into an avoidable situation in an indeterminable future has not been to the liking of many peace-loving Maldivians.

Casting the die

The main battle is between Muizzu's PPM-PNC combine and Solih's MDP, now headed by former foreign minister and veteran diplomat, Abdulla Shahid, who is the interim president of the party. The uniqueness of this election is that the nation's two main parties are divided and the original leaders have been left with the minor faction. Yet, there are already visible local and not-very-local level adjustments and arrangements, aimed at weakening the ruling combine.

Through the six months after losing power, the MDP committed a lot of avoidable faux pas on the legislative front, where it still held an absolute majority after 13 MPs had joined the breakaway Democrats party of past President, Mohammed Nasheed, and an equal number ‘defected' to the incumbent's camp, earlier this year. Including an anti-defection law that curbs cross-over of elected MPs and those down the line to another party, the MDP could have Parliament pass them when Solih was in power and the party had 65 of 83 members, or a four-fifth majority.

The MDP's attitude has left a bad taste in the mouth of the urban elite, at least some of whom may choose to stay away from the parliamentary polls as they did during the presidential election. But that by itself need not be the clincher after Muizzu unwittingly made foreign policy an avoidable poll plank more than during the presidential elections, where he was a late entrant after all — and his campaign-line was seen as being decided for him by others once in the Yameen camp.

Yet, for his part, Muizzu is cleverly sitting on the anti-defection bill, as the mandatory 15-day period for his decision expires on 22 April, when the results for the previous day's poll would have been out — and the outgoing Parliament cannot pass the old bill again, compelling him to sign on the dotted lines. Again, such are not the real issues, but the nation's economy which is seemingly bouncing back on the tourism front, but alienation from the immediate Indian neighbour has consequences for the long-term life of the economy, which urban voters especially perceive very well.

The Yameen camp has fielded independent candidates in many constituencies after their failure to enrol 3,000 voters, as mandated under the law, for registering their new party, People's National Front (PNF), in time for the election. They have questioned the ‘inordinate delay' in the High Court pronouncing the verdict on Yameen's appeal against his conviction and imprisonment in a pending corruption case, which alone disqualified him from contesting the presidential polls last year. As coincidence would have it arch-rival MDP's Parliament Speaker Mohamed Aslam, is among those who have quizzed the inexplicable and inordinate delay.

Indications thus are that post-poll, the MDP and the Yameen camp may work together, drawing in the Democrats, who too hope to win a few seats, against the government combine. And already, Team Yameen has sought Muizzu's impeachment even before the die had been cast. And to offset it all, Muizzu has been making a direct appeal to the voters to give him an absolute majority, if not outright two-thirds or four-fifths, which in the wee hours of the closing of the campaign, looks a far cry.( Courtesy: First Post)

(The writer is a Chennai-based policy analyst and political commentator. Views expressed in the above piece are personal and solely that of the author)

 

 

 

Northlines
Northlines
The Northlines is an independent source on the Web for news, facts and figures relating to Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh and its neighbourhood.

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