Maldivian President Muizzu once again spoke against India in his maiden speech in the archipelagic country’s parliament on February 5, writes Ashok Sajjanhar
Relations between India and Maldives hit a rocky patch when new President Mohamed Muizzu was elected in September, 2023. The foreign policy of Muizzu’s predecessor Ibrahim Mohamed Solih was anchored in the theme of “India First.”
As against this, Muizzu fought the 2023 Presidential election on the slogan of ‘’India Out.’’ According to a Report by the European Election Observation Commission, parties supporting Muizzu “deployed anti-India sentiments and attempted to spread disinformation around this theme during the 2023 presidential elections.”
Muizzu can be wholly held responsible for this unfortunate turn of events. He has conducted Maldives’ relations with India with immaturity, lack of sophistication, short-sightedness and impetuosity.
It is not unusual for India’s smaller neighbours to suffer from a small-country syndrome. India’s small neighbours suffer from an apprehension that their independence and sovereignty could be under threat although India’s policies have always tried to reassure them that India has nothing but their security, well-being, and prosperity at heart.
In the instant case of Maldives, this is demonstrated by India’s prompt assistance during the 1988 coup attempt. The immediate withdrawal by India of its troops when they were no longer required, totally debunked any fears of Indian dominance or territorial aspirations. India was also the first to assist Maldives during the 2004 Tsunami and the water crisis in December, 2014.
India’s rapid and comprehensive support during the outbreak of measles and Covid-19 in 2020 established beyond doubt the advantages of India’s proximity and capacity to come to Maldives’ rescue in distress as compared to any other distant country.
The anti-India small-country syndrome is used by certain segments in the neighbouring countries for their short-sighted personal interests. This is what was done by Muizzu and his party in the recent elections.
India’s neighbours are also prone to using the China card to get more benefits and support in trade, investments, infrastructure development from both India and China.
This demands that they maintain cordial relations with both the countries. Muizzu has moved totally to the China camp by unnecessarily downgrading Maldives’ ties with India.
This is nothing short of shooting itself in the foot as the track record of China in helping developing countries to achieve their developmental aspirations is highly suspect.
Going against the past practice of coming to India as the first foreign country to visit after assuming charge, Muizzu chose Turkiye as his first foreign destination.
Over the years, Maldives has been transforming into an increasingly Islamic radicalized society. Turkiye in its bid to emerge as the leader of the Muslim Ummah has been dabbling in South Asian affairs. Its increased presence in Maldives will be a matter of concern for India.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to Lakshadweep on 2nd January, 2024 extolled the charm of the islands and encouraged more Indians to visit and enjoy their serene beauty. Totally unprovoked, 3 junior Maldivian ministers came out with vituperative and abusive tirades against India, Indians, and PM Modi.
After a barrage of criticism on social media by common Indians and celebrities and threat to stop visiting Maldives, (India contributed the largest of Maldivian incoming tourists in 2022), the Maldivian government ‘’suspended’’ (not dismissed) the three deputy ministers. At the time when the mayhem about the Ministers’ remarks was in full sway, Muizzu was on a 5-day visit to China which was his second port of call.
During the visit he ‘elevated’ bilateral relations with China to ‘strategic cooperation,’ signed 20 agreements, joined China’s Global Development Initiative, Global Strategic Initiative, and Global Civilisation Initiative, revived the Belt and Road Initiative and Free Trade Agreement etc.
On his return, he haughtily declared that Maldives might be a small country but it did not give the right to any country to ‘’bully’’ it. He added that ‘’this (Indian) ocean does not belong to a specific country.’’
In addition, Maldives gave permission to the docking of the Chinese research/spy vessel Xiang Yang Hong 03 in Malé. Maldives’ explanation that the visit was only to replenish stocks sounds hollow.
Coming on the heels of the non-extension of the joint hydrographic agreement with India, the ultimatum to India to withdraw its “77 troops” (which are stationed for humanitarian assistance and medical evacuation purposes) by 15th March, 2024 signifies a pro-active push to replace India with China, Turkiye and other countries.
The way forward
Significant segments of the Maldivian population are in support of close relations with India. Strong statements criticizing comments by the three junior ministers against India and PM Modi were made by many common people and respected members of the political elite of Maldives. There have been demands by several Maldivian leaders that Muizzu should tender an apology to India.
There have also been reports that the Opposition parties will bring a No-Confidence motion against Muizzu. In the recent elections for the Mayor of Male, the position occupied by Muizzu before being elected President, the India-leaning party scored a decisive victory over the candidate of Muizzu’s party.
India needs to proactively reach out to those Maldivians who are favourably disposed towards India. This would need to be done without in any way interfering in the internal affairs of the country.
India extends large quantities of developmental support to Maldives. India will need to draw clear red lines concerning its core strategic and security interests which must be respected by the Maldives.
There are other areas also where India can push back against Maldives. All this would need to be communicated to Maldives behind closed doors and not through the media. The above approach would need to be conducted in a sophisticated and nuanced manner. This is what India has done so far which it needs to continue with equal finesse.
Challenge posed by Muizzu’s government is stiff but not one that India’s experienced and mature diplomacy will not be able to handle.
China continues to deepen its ties with India‘s neighbours to create a “string of pearls’’ to contain it. India, through its Neighbourhood First, Act East and SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in The Region) Policies, has been assiduously reaching out to its land and maritime neighbours with positive and encouraging results.
India should continue to accord priority to its neighbours. It needs to use all assets at its command of development cooperation, soft power, culture, language, cuisine, music etc. to significantly deepen its ties with its neighbouring countries.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Ananta Aspen Centre; he was the ambassador of India to Kazakhstan Sweden and Latvia; views expressed here are his own.)