India’s relationship with the Maldives was slightly ruffled during the regimes of Mohammed Waheed Hassan and Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, however, it has seen a significant improvement since Ibrahim Mohamed Solih came to power and it is now considered one of the best examples of India’s “Neighbourhood First” policy. Solih was put up as a joint candidate of several political parties of Maldives in the presidential elections of 2018 in a bid to protect the fledgling multi-party democracy of the country. Solih himself belongs to the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) to which the first democratically elected president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, belongs. Of late some misunderstanding seems to be developing between these two prominent leaders of the MDP. These differences if not resolved in time could harm the poll prospect of the MDP in the next presidential elections due in 2023. It will also have implications on the domestic and international fronts.
The regime of Abdulla Yameen (2013–18) saw China making deep inroads into the Maldives. Yameen not only took unsustainable debt from China which created fear of the Maldives falling into a debt trap like Sri Lanka, but also tried to pass legislation that could have given China control over some Maldivian islands. Chinese submarines were seen close to the Maldivian islands, which could have further endangered the security of the Indian Ocean region where China already has control over the Hambantota Port.
The situation has improved for India after MDP came to power in 2018 and Ibrahim Mohamed Solih became the president. Since then, a number of steps have been taken to improve the economy of the Maldives. India as the next-door neighbour offered significant help, despite the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. India started a number of infrastructural projects in the Maldives, most of which are being successfully implemented. Maldives was the first country in South Asia to receive vaccines from India, to guard against COVID-19. Moreover, India also helped in the revival of the Maldivian tourism-based economy.1 A large number of tourists from India visited the Maldives when tourists from other countries were not going there in big numbers. This kept the Maldivian tourism industry afloat.
Clearly, the positive approach adopted by the MDP government towards India has helped the Maldivian economy and its people. It has also helped in safeguarding the region from China, which is making an attempt to create difficulties for India and the United States.
A China-sponsored campaign is trying to diminish the Indian influence in the strategically located Maldives.2 This campaign is being run by some Maldivian journalists who are pro-China and they publish unsubstantiated stories in media as well as social media, which is damaging the reputation of India and its diplomats. India has rightly lodged a complaint with the Maldivian foreign ministry to check such elements in line with the Vienna Convention which makes it incumbent on the host country to protect foreign diplomats. Obviously, this campaign is targeted towards putting India on the defensive as it has emerged as a major development partner of the Maldives. The active developmental role played by India has not gone down well among elements inimical to Indian interests, who would benefit if political uncertainty grips the Maldives.
The domestic politics of the Maldives might significantly change if the position of the MDP government weakens. The MDP currently controls the Maldivian Parliament with 65 out of 87 MPs. However, an internal split within the party can make the political situation in the Maldives uncertain. The possibility of this happening has become stronger after the 6 May bomb attack on Mohamed Nasheed, who is presently Speaker of the Maldivian Parliament and also a former president.
It seems that Nasheed is not happy with the working of the Solih government and has accused the government of corruption and inefficiency on several occasions. On his insistence, a minister, Mohamed Maleeh Jamal was sacked. Jamal belonged to Jumhooree Party (JP) but he has now returned to the opposition Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) fold. Nasheed has been advocating a parliamentary form of government like the British and wants the Solih government to hold a referendum on the system of government in the Maldives. But a section of Maldivians especially the supporters of Solih see this as an avoidable controversy and believe that since Solih has been elected by the people of the Maldives as President, he should be allowed to run another term. They also argue that Nasheed is fairly young and can wait until 2028 when the next presidential election would be held, and can hold a referendum on the system of governance then.
Nasheed is also concerned about the rising extremism in the Maldives. Initially, Nasheed and his family appeared to hold the Solih government responsible for the bomb attack on him. Now they want the government and the law enforcement agencies to do a proper investigation. Nasheed alleged that the police did not trace the movements of the people who were involved in the bomb attack.3 They have also been unable to find the origin of the materials used in the terror attack. The funding of the operation has also not been unearthed. Police has also not managed to figure out the source of technology that was used by the extremists. Nasheed also wants the law enforcement agencies to properly interrogate people who supposedly had prior knowledge of the assassination attempt.
Nasheed is further annoyed by the Solih government for its inability to pass the Hate Crime Bill in the parliament though the MDP enjoys a two-thirds majority there.4 The objective of the bill is to control the growing extremism in the Maldives. Hisaan Hussein, a female MDP lawmaker who proposed the bill in May has been receiving death threats. This has made other MDP parliamentarians drag their feet. They are apprehensive that they will receive similar threats if they support the bill. Criticising the Solih government, Nasheed stated that leadership is not only about “diplomacy and compromise” but also “courage and steadfastness”.5 Nasheed created a flutter when he said that it is difficult for him to remain associated with such a government. He went on to seek the help of even former President Yameen, in case he is willing to accept moderate politics.
The power struggle within the MDP has created confusion in the rank and file of the party who have been fed on moderate and anti-Gayoom politics. This kind of confusion is likely to benefit Yameen, who is presently behind bars for five years and disqualified from running for the 2023 presidential elections. Any surprise return of either Yameen or PPM to power might change the flavour of India–Maldives bilateral relationship. It will also have an impact on the security environment in the Indian Ocean region.
The article first published on IDSA website.