Warning signals that India’s Maldivian policy was fraying had been visible for some time
The victory of Opposition candidate Mohammed Muizzu in the Maldives presidential election seemed imminent when he led in the first round, though falling short of the 50 per cent vote that was needed for an outright victory. The run-off was also enabled by a split in the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party. The breakaway faction of Mohamed Nasheed put up Ilyas Labeeb, who garnered seven per cent of the vote. In addition, the Maldives Development Alliance also swung its support behind Mr Muizzu once the wind had shifted.
The eventual winner is a former minister for construction in the government of former President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, who is jailed on corruption charges. The winning alliance consisted of Dr Muizzu’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and Mr Yameen’s People’s National Congress. Mr Yameen fired the opening shot in 2022 with the “India Out Campaign” in order to polarise the electorate. Mr Yameen as President (2013-18) tilted heavily towards China, including by endorsing President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which India opposes on multiple counts.
Thus, the battle lines were drawn between the party in power that espoused an “India First” policy versus one that favours closer access to Chinese finance and technology for infrastructure development. A key project installed with Chinese help was a sea bridge linking the capital Male to the island with the airport.
The United States opened an embassy in the Maldives during President Solih’s term, aligning itself with the Indian desire to restrict the Chinese presence and influence in a key archipelago in the Indian Ocean. Significantly Maldives is close to the American base at Diego Garcia, which is used for its Gulf operations. The Maldives has also been on the radar of the Western nations for having provided, on a per capita basis, the largest number of foreign fighters to Al Qaeda. It continues to have a significant number of supporters of the Islamic State (IS), especially its South Asian branch christened IS (Khorasan). The Guardian newspaper has reported a US treasury department listing of 20 individuals who are members or financial facilitators of ISIS, IS(K) and Al Qaeda.
For India, therefore, the concerns are twofold: Chinese entrenchment in India’s maritime neighbourhood and Islamic radicalism affecting India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, naturally not wishing to betray India’s key concerns, promptly greeted the winner, Dr Muizzu, expressing the hope that “time-tested” bilateral relations would only strengthen. However, the concerns can hardly be discounted as the President-elect dealt directly, as the minister in charge, with China’s BRI projects in the Maldives in 2013-18.
Warning signals that India’s Maldivian policy was fraying had been visible for some time. The above-mentioned anti-India campaign of Mr Yameen was followed by an attack on an India-sponsored yoga event in 2022. This illustrates that when India undertakes global cultural campaigns, their impact in each country must be assessed. In the Maldivian archipelago, with a population of half a million Muslims, the domestic majoritarian politics of the BJP will be watched closely. Those opposed to India would exploit the doubts and fears in the minds of the people. The Maldivian Opposition used the argument of nationalism and independence of the Maldives to attack President Ibrahim Solih’s government, debunking it as an Indian lackey. External affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar visited the Maldives when this campaign had already taken hold. He did offer more assistance and goodies but it was a belated attempt to counter the bogey of Maldivian independence being compromised by the Indian military presence on the islands. It was forgotten during the toxic debate that the Indian armed forces had intervened in 1988 to counter a mercenary-led attempt to overthrow the then Maldivian government.
The Guardian newspaper has also alleged that China has played a role in shaping the anti-India narrative. Apparently, Maldivian journalists and influential figures were taken on all-paid trips to China. The latest report of the US government’s Global Engagement Centre, which monitors foreign disinformation and propaganda, examines the Chinese threat. It notes that “Beijing has invested billions of dollars to construct an information ecosystem in which the PRC propaganda and disinformation gain traction”. It is unclear what, if any, counter-measures India had undertaken to help a vital ally facing a crucial election in the Maldives.
The President-elect, Dr Muizzu, got the government to immediately shift the convicted former President Yameen from jail to house arrest. He has promised during his campaign to release him once he assumes power. He also claimed that his victory signifies the people’s decision to “win back Maldivian independence”. These may just be words to enable public catharsis after highly polarising electioneering. He must realise that cultural and historic links of the Maldives with the Indian mainland cannot be replaced by China. But once he releases Mr Yameen, the anti-India groups may get more vocal. The President-elect may be clever enough to realise that Mr Yameen, if unshackled, may turn out to be a much bigger problem for him before becoming one for India.
Observers are noting that the presidential election has not only been about choosing which out of China and India would be allowed more influence, but also between liberal values that Western nations and India represent and the Islamic forces in the Maldives. The BJP, hardly seen as vocal defenders of religious freedom in India, cannot nail the Chinese persecution of their Muslim Uyghurs. Thus, ironically, the Islamic forces in Maldives are aligning with China as the defender of Maldivian ethnic-religious and political independence.
The Sino-Indian contest for influence in each other’s neighbourhood will persist until the two nations can settle the terms of engagement in a world transitioning to a new world order. The Maldives will be seen as a win for China for now. It remains to be seen if Dr Muizzu is mature enough, unlike his political mentor Abdulla Yameen, to avoid getting caught in an India-China diplomatic wrangle.
However, a few conclusions are fairly obvious. One, how an Indian government handles its Muslim minority at home will influence its ability to handle its Muslim neighbours. Two, what the US realised long ago, dealing with democracies is more complex than autocratic regimes. Three, India has to be proactive in assessing the threats to friendly governments in its immediate neighbourhood -- continental or maritime. Nepal and the Maldives are now in danger of excessive Chinese influence. In Sri Lanka, the jury is still out. In the final analysis, Indian diplomacy gets tested the most, not at G-20 summits, but in dealing with its neighbours.