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India-Maldives Ties: A Walk on Eggshells As New Delhi Faces the China Question

Delhi will have to tread carefully without appearing to be ‘forcing’ Maldives which could backfire, politically.

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It's the year 1988. An overambitious Maldivian businessman bankrolls mercenaries from a Tamil secessionist group, People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) to undertake a coup d'état against the Maldivian Government headed by President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

About 150 armed mercenaries start gaining control and the Maldivian President goes into hiding. Frantic calls are made by the distressed Maldivian Government to Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Singapore, the United States, and the United Kingdom – all express either incapability or delay owing to distance. UK suggests approaching India, and almost immediately India heeds to a Maldivian SOS.

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India’s Maldivian Allyship

The Agra-based 50th Independent Parachute Brigade commanded by the legendary Brigadier Farukh 'Bull’ Bulsara hops into an IL-76 and dashes 2000 km non-stop in a chilling fight against time, pursuant to ‘Operation Cactus’.

The Indian Navy gets into action and sets sail.

Brigadier Bulsara is a quintessential and straight-shooting Para Commando (earlier Commanded 9 Paras) and announces cryptically to Gayoom, “Mr President, we have arrived”. Indian commandos round up the mercenaries and the Indian Navy mops up those who tried to flee towards Sri Lanka.

Indian Paratroopers had landed within 9 hours of the SOS, and with this action, so did India, in terms of global imagination by demonstrating its strategic wherewithal and capabilities. TIME magazine comes out with a cover photo of the Indian Navy battleship Godavari with ‘Super India’ as the title, and ‘The Next Military Power’ as the sub-heading. 

More importantly, Indian troops left as quickly as they arrived, after handing back control to the Maldivian Government.

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Emerging Tensions But India's Naval Partnership Continues

Cut to 2014 – A decidedly anti-India (and pro-China) politician, President Abdulla Yameen, is in power in Maldives.

A fire in the main water treatment plant servicing the drinking water needs of the capital city, Male, breaks out and a grave emergency looms. Yet again, India reacted with alacrity and promptness to the Maldivian crisis and sent five planes and two ships carrying fresh water.

Besides handing over bottled water, the Indian warships anchor and start producing fresh water using its Reverse Osmosis (RO) unit, on board.

India re-demonstrates its ‘first responder’ capability in times of acute crisis, even with Abdullah Yameen flirting with the Chinese. The incident reiterates the recurring vulnerabilities that the tiny and distant archipelago state in the Indian Ocean faces.  

Again, having done the needful and thwarting the crisis, the Indian Air Force and Navy elements returned.

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Local Passions, Perceptions, and Persuasions of Maldivian Politics

Like all neighbouring countries, India rules large in the popular imagination, both as a benefactor or conversely as a ‘big brother’. This makes it susceptible to getting preferred or opposed by political parties as an emotional electoral issue, as well as a bargaining chip with a competitive suitor (read, China).

Delhi’s history of intervening positively also led to the ironical consternation of the Maldivian opposition parties who started a disquiet campaign against the Maldivian Government’s traditional ‘India First’ policy to suggest a compromise to Maldivian sovereignty.

While the revolt to ‘India First’ is essentially borne out of the necessity of having to take a contrarian stand, the optics and perceptions emerging out of India’s own domestic politics (majoritarian) do not sit easy with the conservative-Islamic bearing of the Maldivian populace.
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Alternative fate of ‘India First’ and ‘India Out’ forces  

Following Delhi’s aid during the crippling Covid pandemic via ‘Operation Sanjeevani’, Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih had stated the obvious, “India is almost always, our first responder in times of crises, and is amongst the loudest supporters in times of good fortune. Which is why, my Administration’s ‘India First’ policy is so crucial to ensure that our longstanding ties continue to weather the test of time. It is during my Administration thus far, that we have reached the pinnacle of our diplomatic and economic relations."

This sentiment is cue enough and fodder for the opposition parties to launch an unprecedented and emotional ‘India Out’ campaign on the rebound without contextualising India’s past interventions, and instead, cherry-picking facts to weave a negative campaign.

A combination of anti-incumbency, perceived inefficacy, corruption, and indeed populist passions unleashed by the bloc led by Abdullah Yameen ushers in the first Maldivian government (2013-2018) that tilts clearly in favour of Beijing.

But difficult as those five years were, the revolving door of alternating fates brings back the pro-India Ibrahim Mohamed Solih government (2018-2023) which reaffirms the ‘India First’ policy. 

Now, the revolving door strikes back with anti-India resonances, and yet again a candidate whose campaign was littered with ‘India Out’ promises, wins the latest elections.

President-elect Mohamed Muizzu is the nominated leader of this bloc since previous President Abdullah Yameen was convicted, incarcerated, and debarred from standing for elections. Muizzu’s earlier claim to fame was the Sinamale Bridge (originally called ‘China Maldives Friendship Bridge’) that had symbolised the strategic Chinese entry in the Abdullah Yameen years of the Dragon.

Muizzu as Abdullah’s protégé is feared to walk the campaign talk of ‘India Out’ as he announces his intent, almost immediately, “We will send back foreign soldiers in the Maldives”, without naming any country – except everyone knows where the finger is pointed.

Having dialled up the sovereignty issue successfully, Muizzu is duty-bound to some threats and theatrics, but how much is the question? 
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Delhi’s Way Forward to Counter ‘India Out’ Imperatives 

While Delhi will ‘wait and watch’ for the substantial as opposed to reacting to the political, there is a clear-cut task of navigating the issue with the Maldives. History and facts validate that contrary to the recent partisan narrative spun, India has had no territorial dispute or ambition of expansionism in the Maldives, save for deterring and dissuading Chinese re-entry.

The fate of neighbouring Sri Lanka which too partook in a fling with the Chinese only to get saddled with a fatal ‘debt-trap’ at its Hambantota Port will be hard to overlook. The Chinese mistreatment of their own Uyghur Muslims is better known than in 2013 when Abdullah Yameen courted Beijing.

The Pakistanis and the Sri Lankan are in no economic position to emerge as alternative sources of succour in any crisis.

Lastly, the lever of ‘re-adjusting’ the terms of repayment towards the USD 3 billion Indian aid given to the financially strapped Maldives, could be invoked towards bilateral relations between Male and Delhi. 
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Delhi will have to tread very carefully without being seen to be ‘forcing’ Maldives (which it could legitimately, but would backfire, politically). It will need to offer space, time and reasons to Muizzu to check his own enthusiasm and backtrack from extreme measures.

Deep down, Muizzu would know (as does an average Maldivian) that the minuscule Indian presence of its security apparatus is for foreign deterrence and checkmating, and not for usurpation, assertion or dominance of Maldivian interests, let alone sovereignty.
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There are tons of irreplaceable trade-commerce and tourism-related win-wins at stake if only President-elect Muizzu sheds his campaign vitriol and does what is optimum for the Maldives. History is instructive, India has been the best bet. Therefore, even if ‘India First’ cannot be publicly stated for partisan/political reasons, the ‘India Out’ line ought to be shelved.

(The author is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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