Geopolitical and electoral considerations exacerbate Indo-Maldivian tension

By  P.K.Balachandran

Colombo, January 8: Hopes of Indo-Maldivian relations getting back to normal after the Maldivian government suspended three Deputy Ministers for passing derogatory remarks against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have receded.

The summoning of the Maldivian High Commissioner Ibrahim Shaheeb by the Indian External Affairs Ministry to register a protest, clearly indicated that New Delhi was not mollified by the “suspension” of the Deputy Ministers.

New Delhi is clearly seeing the episode against the backdrop of President Mohamed Muizzu presence in China on a State visit after studiously avoiding the customary visit to India.

The Maldivian Foreign Ministry tried to do some more fire-fighting  on Monday by summoning Indian High Commissioner Munu Mahawar to “explain” the Maldives’ stand on the issue, which was that the said ministers’ remarks did not reflect the views of the Maldivian government and that the government would come down heavily on those who damaged relations with friendly countries by their thoughtless remarks.  

The Deputy Ministers suspended were Mariyam Shiuna, Malsha Shareef, and Mahzoom Majid, all described as youthful agitators, not mature politicians.

But Male’s efforts to wriggle out of the messy situation are unlikely to impress New Delhi given its larger and deeper concerns about  Maldivian policy towards India and China.  

Having come to power promising to send the 75-member Indian military detachment back, Muizzu said that he would review a hundred agreements signed with India by the previous pro-Indian government of President Ibrahim Solih.

Muizzu broke the tradition of newly elected Maldivian Presidents visiting India first after assuming office. Muizzu took over in mid-November 2023 and visited Turkiye and UAE thereafter, and is now in China. He has completely bypassed India, the regional power.

To top it all, during the on-going visit to China, Muizzu is to sign a number of agreements in various fields clearly with an intention to give China primacy in the economic development programmes of the Maldives, and putting in question the fate of Indian-aided projects.

India is also worried about the security implications of the growing bonhomie between Muizzu and the Chinese leadership. India is deeply concerned about Chinese “research vessels” prowling in the Indian Ocean collecting sensitive data on ocean currents and the ocean floor but not sharing the data with partner countries in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

India had already asked Sri Lanka and the Maldives not to entertain the visit of such vessels as they could jeopardise India’s security. While Sri Lanka has imposed a one-year moratorium on such visits ostensibly to allow it to work out a protocol for visits by foreign research vessels, the Maldives is still to respond to India’s demand.   

The Maldivian junior ministers’ insulting remarks on Modi had triggered sharp public reactions in India, piling political pressure on Modi to flex his muscles.

Facing parliamentary elections four months down the line, Modi could not but react to the brazen challenge from tiny Maldives. “Strong man” Modi had no option but to tick off the Muizzu regime.   

The Hindu reported that the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of EaseMyTrip, Nishant Pitti, announced the suspension of all Maldives flight bookings following the derogatory remarks.

Nishant Pitti took to social media X, to say: “In solidarity with our nation, @EaseMyTrip has suspended all Maldives flight bookings.”

Online travel solutions provider EaseMyTrip has also begun a “Visit Lakshadweep” campaign saying that the “Water & beaches of Lakshadweep are as good as Maldives/Seychelles. We at @EaseMyTrip will come up with crazy special-offers to promote this pristine destination that our PM @narendramodi has recently visited!”

In the midst of an escalating row between India and the Maldives, hashtag #BoycottMaldives gained traction on social media as Indian tourists started cancelling their scheduled vacations to the island nation, The Hindu said.

The Indian Association of Tour Operators predicted that the call for a boycott would become apparent within the next 20-25 days. Tour operators were quoted as saying that statements such as those by the Maldivian politicians prevent people from choosing a particular nation for a trip.

The Maldives is a popular among Indians as a tourist destination. Indian tourists were the highest among visitors to the Maldives till December 2023. The largest number of tourists who visited the Maldives were from India (209,198), followed by Russia (209,146) and China (187,118).

China’s Perspective

Meanwhile, in a commentary on the eve of President Muizzu’s visit to China, the semi-official Global Times said that it is wrong to think that Maldives’ foreign policy can have only two choices: either rely on India or turn to China.

It said:  “These voices completely ignore the fact that the Maldives is an independent sovereign country with legitimate interests and demands. As Muizzu has said before, the Maldives has no intention of getting involved in the geopolitical struggle between bigger powers and will cooperate with all countries, including India and China.”

“Indian and Western public opinions always view the Maldives through the lens of the competition between China and India. For them, the Maldives, due to its strategic importance, has become a piece of meat in the struggle between China and India. They have shown a hurt mentality when looking at the development of China-Maldives relations.”

“In their view, only when the Maldives complies with India can they feel relieved. Moving closer to other countries is seen as a form of betrayal. This is firstly a lack of respect for the Maldives.”

“Secondly, they have been measuring China’s corn by their own bushel. Chinese diplomacy is a true implementation of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, treating all sovereign countries equally regardless of size, respecting their sovereignty, not interfering in their internal affairs, and not targeting third parties.”

“Furthermore, in the development of relations between China and the Maldives, there is no requirement for the Maldives to sour relations with India or any other country, without exclusivity and without involving third-party conditions.”


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