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Wake-up Call: What 'Pro-China' Muizzu's Win in Maldives Election Means for India

#Opinion: The incumbent, Mohamed Solih, was swept out of power by the leader of the “India Out” slogan.

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The defeat of the Maldives’ pro-India President, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, at the hands of pro-China Mohamed Muizzu is a setback not only for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, but also a personal loss for him.

And the timing of the diplomatic debacle in our backyard couldn’t have been worse.

Call it a reality check or a wake-up call, but Beijing has indeed pulled off a big win in India’s immediate neighbourhood – the archipelago in the Indian Ocean is barely 70 nautical miles away from Minicoy – within weeks of all the grandstanding at the G20 Summit in New Delhi, and especially the all-out projection of India as the 'Mother of democracy' and a Vishwa Guru to raise the country’s profile both internationally and domestically.

Importantly, after becoming the PM in 2014, Modi visited all countries in the neighbourhood one by one except the Maldives, as it was ruled by the rabidly anti-India and pro-China Abdulla Yameen from 2013 to 2018.

But as soon as Solih defeated Yameen in the 2018 presidential elections, Modi made a beeline for Male. He not only graced Solih’s swearing-in ceremony, but took him under his wings as an elder statesman and mentored him.

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How 'India First' Cost Solih the Election

It was under Modi’s direct influence that Solih officially adopted an “India First” foreign policy, which nicely complemented our "Neighbourhood First” approach. Modi charmed and befriended Solih, making Indian diplomats’ task of freeing the Maldives from China’s embrace and bringing it into India’s camp easy and simple.

India had a dream run in the Maldives for five long years – and the credit for that goes to Modi more than anyone else in our diplomatic, security, and political establishments. The PM led from the front and the others simply followed his strategic guidance.

Instead of losing to Muizzu, if Solih had somehow won a second term in 2023 despite aligning and siding with India, then Modi would have surely graced his swearing-in once again – but alas!

The poll outcome shows how India and Modi ultimately became an albatross around Solih’s neck, sinking him and his Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) in the first round of elections on 9 September as well as in the second and final round, a runoff, on 30 September, sealing his fate.

Solih was swept out of power by the "India Out” campaign mounted by the China-backed Progressive Opposition coalition comprising Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and Muizzu’s People’s National Congress (PNC). Solih had to pay the price for being too close to India and Modi.

The PPM-PNC’s "India Out” campaign initially focussed on New Delhi’s growing footprint in the Maldives, especially, India’s military presence in the atoll nation and dominance in all spheres ranging from economics and politics to defence and security. But Modi did become a central figure in the last stages of electioneering to rally the Maldives’ Muslim masses: he was mocked and caricatured.

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What Next for the India-Maldives Relationship?

Solih tried his best to shield Modi, calling the attacks on him “dishonourable acts by the Opposition to destroy the country’s long-standing cordial ties with India”. But the defence boomeranged in the conservative country roiled by reports of anti-Muslim violence and blasphemous attacks on Prophet Muhammad by BJP leaders in India.

There is no doubt that Solih’s pro-India leanings, and especially his excellent and well-publicised personal equation with Modi, eventually evicted him from power.

The Opposition’s goal of containing India’s and Modi’s influence over the Maldives got an overwhelming thumbs-up from the electorate. The gist of Muizzu’s campaign was that Solih had handed over the Maldives’ independence and sovereignty to New Delhi on a platter.

Little wonder then that Muizzu said after his victory that voters had chosen to "win back Maldives independence." He also remarked: “Now we have the strength to ensure the freedom of Maldives”, harping on the opposition’s charge that under Solih, the Maldives had lost its autonomy to India which it had now regained through democracy.

Muizzu, a British-educated technocrat, and mayor of Male, was fielded to challenge Solih only because ex-President Yameen was behind bars on corruption charges and barred from contesting the polls. The 45-year-old victor is so indebted to Yameen that his first act as President-designate was to transfer Yameen from a high-security jail to house arrest! Solih, 61, will function as caretaker president until Muizzu takes the oath of office on 17 November.

The coming six weeks are very crucial for India before Muizzu formally takes charge of the Maldives. Both Muizzu and Yameen – the power behind the new president – have said time and again that they would revoke all defence and security pacts with India if voted to power.

Before his downfall in 2018, Yameen wanted to cancel the visas of 75 Indian military personnel stationed in the Maldives and send back two helicopters and a small aircraft provided by India.

Let’s face it, Muizzu is as beholden to China as Solih is to India. Against this backdrop of geopolitical allegiance and rivalry, India – as the resident power – is sure to keep a hawk’s eye on Muizzu’s opening moves and Muizzu would be equally keen to fathom New Delhi’s intent and goals after the regime change.

(SNM Abdi is a distinguished journalist and ex-Deputy Editor of Outlook. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Maldives    China   Members Only 

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