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India’s interest in Maldivan politics

India’s interest in Maldivan politics

In a major boost to India-Maldives relations under the ‘neighborhood first’ policy, India hosted Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih in the first week of August. President Solih led a high-level business and political delegation to discuss a range of bilateral and global issues with India. This was President Solih’s third visit to India after assuming office in October 2018 and the first post-pandemic.

The visit happened amid an internal crisis in the Solih-led Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) coalition government and difficulties for the island country in grappling with development projects, with low volumes of foreign direct investment and tourists. Since the assassination attempt on Mohamed Nasheed (May 2021), his supporters, and Nasheed himself, have been speaking openly against Solih. He is also opposed to Solih’s candidature in the 2023 presidential elections and has accused him of pandering to Islamist hardliners. Interestingly, in the 2022 MDP party chairmanship elections, Solih’s candidate won over Nasheed.

Given the comprehensive partnership with the Maldives, India gave the visit high priority. The two sides discussed a wide range of bilateral and regional issues including investment, trade, human-resource development, infrastructure, cooperation in multilateral forums, defense, security, and strategic cooperation. As this was the first high-level visit after a two-year gap, the MEA felt it could “advance the exemplary ties of friendship” between the two countries. President Solih met Indian President Droupadi Murmu and had one-on-one as well as delegation level talks with PM Modi. He had a separate meeting with External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar.

Ever since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1965, the ties have been characterized by mutual trust, understanding and maturity.  The relationship is free from any major controversy. The one-time claim of the Maldives to Minicoy Island was resolved by the Maritime Boundary Treaty of 1976. Despite many asymmetries, the two countries depend on each other and acknowledge each other as equal partners in their collective endeavor for economic growth, consolidation of democracy, and regional peace. 

The two sets of leaders feel that India’s ‘neighborhood first’ and Maldives’ ‘India first’ policies are complementary. This was reiterated during this visit too. Moreover, the importance of India’s strategic role in that part of the Indian Ocean has been well-recognized by the Maldives given India’s geographical advantage in the region. India is seen as a net security provider to the Maldives both in conventional and non-conventional senses. India was the first to assist the Maldives during the 2004 Tsunami as well as during Male’s water crisis in December 2014.

There are several institutional arrangements between the two countries in areas like hydrographic survey, trade, economic, defense, development cooperation, tourism, disaster management, education, and capacity-building. India was a key trading partner of the Maldives with over $300 in trade in 2021. India was also the fifth largest source of tourists in the Maldives with around 6.1 percent (90,474) market-share before the Covid-19 restrictions. Apart from annual aid and technical assistance, in December 2018, India announced a $1.4 billion financial package in the form of budgetary support, currency swap, and a concessional line of credit to manage the rising external debt created during the presidency of Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom (November 2013- 2018).

Defense and security cooperation is an important aspect of bilateral relationship. India has a wide range of security arrangements with the Maldives including joint maritime security cooperation, SAAGAR, counter-terrorism and capacity building of the Maldivian defence forces.  During this visit, the two PMs acknowledged that the ‘security of India and the Maldives are interlinked’, further strengthening mutual trust and cooperation on security.

This reassurance was both timely and essential. The island country has been witnessing multiple challenges like political instability, Islamic radicalism, extra-regional powers’ interests, and climate change-induced disasters. These challenges are difficult for a small country like the Maldives to address alone. Moreover, given its strategic location and increasing presence of global powers in the Indian Ocean region, these challenges have been a concern for India too. Only a stable, progressive, and democratic government in Male can manage these risks.

Despite being committed to multiparty democracy and a new constitution in 2008, the Maldives has witnessed several autocratic regimes, including, most recently, Yameen’s. India has always pushed for strengthening of multiparty democracy in the Maldives. It played a crucial role in restoring multiparty democracy by supporting the MDP in 2018. India believes autocratic regimes in the Maldives often engage with elements inimical to India. Yameen was the best example of that. The current crisis in the MDP could still affect the continuation of democracy there.

The Maldives is scheduled to have presidential elections in 2023. Current speaker Nasheed and President Solih have shown an interest. If the Solih government continues to be obstructed by Nasheed, then the Progressive Congress, a coalition of the opposition Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and the People’s National Congress (PNC)—which has been spearheading an “India Out” campaign—could have an advantage in the elections. The Yameen-led Progressive Congress is known for serving Chinese interests. 

Back to Solih’s visit, it appears to have been successful given the release of the 30-point joint statement on 02 August and the signing of six MoUs in areas of mutual interests. India’s commitment to a new LoC of $100 million to finance infrastructure in the Maldives would support several large projects and boost the fragile Maldivian economy.

Politically, the MDP currently enjoys the majority in parliament. If the tussle between Nasheed and Solih continues, the MDP might lose the same in the upcoming elections. India would wish for the continuation of the current inclusive combination of radical, conservative, and liberal democratic forces to tackle critical issues like religious extremism and Yameen-led ‘India Out’ campaign.

As India treats emerging security issues of Maldives as a challenge to its own national security, it would prefer to further strengthen democracy there and protect its sphere of influence.