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Maldives: Muizzu Displays Cold Realism by Axing Ministers for Anti-Modi Remarks

The Maldivian president knows how useful India’s naval muscle can be in the case of a man-made or natural calamity.

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The alacrity with which the Maldives' new President Mohamed Muizzu axed three ministers – on a Sunday and that too in the middle of packing his bags for a state visit to China on Xi Jinping’s invitation – for their anti-Modi and anti-India remarks, reveals a pragmatic leader with his ear to the ground who knows where to draw the line.

Muizzu’s lightning-fast punitive action, and Male’s unqualified official statement without any ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ honestly acknowledging that the remarks on social media by Mariyam Shuina, Malsha Shareef, and Abdulla Mahzoom Majid were indeed “derogatory”, send out a few loud and clear geopolitical messages.

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Muizzu Knows Better Than to Mess With the Resident Power

Firstly, it is foolhardy for the Maldives – South Asia’s smallest democracy with a population of a little over half a million – to mess around with the resident power. It might have any number of grouses but unnecessarily picking up a fight with India is dangerous.

The Maldives has every right to live with India with its honour intact, but this is only possible provided it refrains from dishonouring India. It simply can’t cross India’s red lines, which I am sorry to say, the trio did -- for which they have been rapped hard on the knuckles by their boss.

Secondly, a retributive boycott of the Maldives by Indian tourists will be disastrous for the archipelago. Tourism accounts for 30 per cent of its GDP, 60 per cent of foreign earnings, and generates 60 per cent of employment. According to figures released by the Maldivian Tourism Ministry, India accounted for the highest number of visitors among the 209,198 tourists as of December 2023, while Russians accounted for the second highest number.

Thirdly, tourism – the largest sector of the Maldives’ economy is flourishing not only because of Indian tourists but also because of New Delhi’s protective shield for the hospitality industry. Muizzu wants India to withdraw its military personnel from the islands. He wants to scrap all defence agreements with India. But there is no denying that tourists only go to destinations that are safe and secure – a requirement India is helping the Maldives fulfil so far to the satisfaction of visitors.

Were Indian troops to leave overnight, as Muizzu is persistently demanding, what’s the guarantee that terrorists won’t storm high-end resorts from the sea and take tourists hostage? A single heist will kill the tourism industry which lays golden eggs for the island nation.

All this might sound alarmist, but India, as the resident power, has the armed capabilities to ensure the maritime security of the Maldives. And India has risen promptly to the occasion as a net security provider more than once. If India were to comply with Muizzu’s demand and withdraw its defence personnel, who would protect the Maldives from threats and challenges?

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Modi's Key Role in Keeping the Island Nation in India’s Orbit

Muizzu, a British-educated technocrat-turned-politician, is known to keep a sharp eye on what’s going on. He can’t be but aware of six warships of the Indian Navy being presently engaged in anti-piracy operations in the Arabian Sea, and our maritime commandoes (MARCOs) rescuing 21 crew members, including 15 Indians, from a merchant ship after its attempted hijack off the Somalian coast by pirates.

I reckon that Muizzu came down like a ton of bricks on the offending ministers because he realises how useful India’s naval muscle can be in the event of a man-made or natural calamity.

While the sweeping statements about India by the three ministers, who have been suitably punished, are malicious, the personal attacks on Modi should be seen through the prism of his centrality in India-Maldives relations.

For five long years; from 2018 to 2023; Modi played a key role in keeping the island nation in India’s orbit. Right from attending Ibrahim Solih’s swearing-in in 2018, he assisted India’s foreign policy and security establishments in making the Maldives a rare success story in India’s neighborhood by befriending his counterpart as a dynamic mentor.

I doubt if Solih would have adopted and genuinely pursued his “India First” policy, which complemented our “Neighbourhood First” approach if Modi had not taken him under his wings as an elder statesman. The credit for India’s dream run in the archipelago goes more to Modi than anyone else.

But there is also no denying that Modi ultimately became the focus of the “India Out” campaign, which swept Muizzu to power, in the last stages of electioneering to rally the masses in the Maldives which is a 100 per cent Muslim country. He was so badly lampooned, ridiculed, and caricatured that Solih had to condemn it as “dishonourable”. It is another matter that Solih’s defence of Modi weakened the former’s position even more and actually helped Muizzu trump him at the hustings.

Shuina, deputy minister for youth empowerment and information, who has been axed for calling Modi a “puppet of Israel”, probably thought that she would get away with it, considering that Muizzu’s residence sports a huge Palestinian flag and he is an outspoken critic of Zionism! While India-Modi’s backing for Israel is too well known to bear repetition, the whole of the Maldives, in contrast, stands with Palestine. But Muizzu still felt that Shuina had gone too far and promptly punished her.

(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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