Redeveloping India-Maldives relations
The relations between India and Maldives go back several decades to the point where India prevented a coup attempt against the government of Abdul Gayoom in 1988 and has always been first responder to any calamity that has befallen on the island nation. This approach is keeping in line with how New Delhi considers Indian Ocean and territories within to be under its area of influence.
However New Delhi’s influence over Male began to fray when President Mohammed Nasheed belonging to Maldivian Democratic Party, who was seen as friendly towards India, was made to resign in 2012 after facing protests by opposition following his order to arrest a senior judge on corruption charges. Early elections were held and Abdulla Yameen belonging to Progressive Party of Maldives became the president in Nov, 2013. Mr. Yameen was considered to be more inclined towards China and it came to be true. Maldives gradually distanced itself from India, multiple deals were awarded to China by Maldivian government, including a contract to extend Male international airport that was earlier cancelled with India’s GMR group. More recently in December 2017, controversial Free Trade Agreement was signed with China, first for Maldives with any country, when it already had trade deficit and much of national debt is owed to China. This deal was heavily criticised by opposition leaders and wasn’t seen to be in national interest.
In February 2018, political situation in the country deteriorated further when President Yameen ordered the arrest of his political opponents including former president Maumnoom Abdul Gayoom, chief justice of Supreme Court and other justices as well. Martial law was declared and heavy crackdown began against dissenters. He ran the country more like an autocracy and less like a democracy. Mr. Yameen justified imposing emergency on frivolous grounds of conspiracy of a coup against the elected government.
Amidst all this chaos, calls were made to New Delhi by Mr Nasheed, former president and opposition candidate, to intervene militarily and restore the rule of law in the island nation as it had done once before. However this time situation was different. In 1988, a coup was organised against the government and it requested assistance, but this time, the opposition leaders were asking for military intervention against the elected government of a sovereign nation. Therefore New Delhi decided to not intervene and monitor the situation as it develops.
This strategy paid off as in the presidential elections held on 23rd September, people of Maldives ousted Yameen and voted in joint opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. Mr. Yameen tried to hold on to power by calling the elections rigged against him but after statements were issued by India and US expecting peaceful transfer of power, he relented and stepped down. It is largely being seen as a setback for China in the island nation and a breather for India.
Mr. Solih was sworn in on 17th Nov, and since then he has already declared review of all the agreement that were signed with China under the 4 year rule of President Yameen. Former President Nasheed who is also the head of largest party in coalition government has stated that Maldives will pull out of the FTA signed with China. Solih has set up a team to look into the projects undertaken by China in the country during the previous government. The governor of Maldives central bank said in a testimony before Parliament’s public finance committee that $1.5 billion is owed to China.
It is a good sign for New Delhi that Mr. Solih was voted in but the trouble is still not over, it should remain careful as China can still keep a foothold in Maldives as it did in Sri Lanka through its ‘debt trap’ diplomacy after Mr. Mahinda Rajpaksa was voted out of the parliament in 2015. When the subsequent government failed to make repayments against loan, it asked for relaxed terms, China refused and instead offered to take over Hambantota port in lieu of repayment. Sri Lanka agreed. Delhi failed to provide any assistance to Sri Lanka in repayment of loans and now it fears China might use the port for military purpose. Delhi must not repeat same mistakes and should provide assistance to Maldives in paying off the loans to restrict China’s influence to bare minimum. It is also an opportunity for Indian companies to invest in Maldives and take over the projects from which Maldives pulls out and were earlier awarded to China. Delhi needs to take calculated steps; it should not be seen as aggressive as it can turn perception of Maldivian’s against India. Support of local populace will go a long way to establish good relations with new government.
The early signs from both parties are encouraging. PM Modi was the only head of state to attend the swearing in ceremony of Mr. Solih, reaffirming the importance of Maldives for India. PM Modi “conveyed India’s readiness to extend help in every way possible and suggested that both sides should meet at the earliest to work out the details as per the requirements of Maldives.” He was also the first foreign dignitary to congratulate Mr. Solih on his victory in the elections. “With regard to our relations with India, I’m sure we have always had good relations with India even under the Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) government earlier, which was very short lived in 2008–2012. We hope that ‘India First’ policy that we had will continue,” said Mariya Ahmed Didi, defence minister of Maldives, in an interview with India Today.
So far both parties have shown the will to engage and rebuild the ties that were severed under Mr Yameen. However it remains to be seen whether Maldives will go the way of Sri Lanka or President Solih will be able to pull out Maldives of this crisis like PM Mahatir, who was recently elected in parliament elections and Najib Razak was voted out amid widespread of allegation of corruption against him, was able to pull out Malaysia from debt by cancelling projects under BRI with China worth $23bn.