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Mohamed Muizzu Swearing-In: India Need Not Lose Heart or Sleep over the Maldives

Modi had dominated the last swearing-in like a colossus and his absence today will be equally conspicuous.

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As Mohamed Muizzu is administered the oath of office today sharp at 4.30 pm in Male’s sea-facing Republic Square, where a supersize Maldivian national flag proudly flies round the clock above the meticulously maintained lush greenery, it’s time for New Delhi to quickly reconfigure its strategy in its contested oceanic backyard where China has stolen a march over India.

How times have changed.

Exactly five years ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the star attraction at Muizzu’s predecessor, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s swearing-in ceremony held in the National Football Stadium on 17 November 2018.

After the function, a triumphant Modi visited both the President’s Office and the Presidential Palace before flying back, underlining India’s high stakes in Solih’s ascent to power after defeating the pro-China Abdullah Yameen who ruled from 2013 to 2018.

Since then, there has been a sea change in the archipelago at our doorstep. Solih, who followed an “India First” policy and established close ties with the Modi government, lost badly to the pro-China Muizzu — a Yameen proxy — in the September general elections, which was like a referendum on Maldives’ foreign policy orientation.

Muizzu was, in fact, catapulted to victory by the “India Out” campaign — and has made expelling Indian “troops” stationed in Maldives his first priority after taking over today.

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Why Modi's Absence Matters

Modi had dominated the last swearing-in like a colossus as the only world leader present on the occasion – and his absence today will be equally conspicuous. Importantly, Modi has chosen to stay away despite receiving an invitation well in time. The argument that he is preoccupied with electioneering is not valid because in 2018 he had taken a break from campaigning in the very same states!

External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar, too has given Male a wide berth prioritising the faraway United Kingdom over Maldives in India’s zone of influence. Other heavyweights who could have represented us -- National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, and Foreign Secretary, Vinay Kwatra -- have also given Male a miss.

By sending Kiren Rijiju, Union Minister for Earth Sciences, to represent India at such an important diplomatic event today in our immediate neighbourhood, the only message that is sent out is that New Delhi has lost heart. Unless Rijiju has been sent to Male simply to needle Beijing because he is from Arunachal Pradesh which China does not recognise as a part of India.

But I wonder if Shen Yiqin, State Councillor and President Xi Jinping’s Special Envoy, who is already in Male to represent China, will be embarrassed one bit by Rijiju’s presence at Muizzu’s coronation or the state banquet to follow. She is a very senior leader of China’s Communist Party who is unlikely to feel uncomfortable due to Rijiju’s attendance who in any case, is such a lightweight compared to her.

I think that India has no reason to lose heart or sleep over the Maldives. And it is certainly naïve on New Delhi’s part to downgrade its engagement with Male by dispatching Rijiju. While Modi skipping the event in the given circumstances probably makes sense, it is a big error of judgement not to send Jaishankar in place of the PM. Instead of getting disheartened, India must remain invested to keep the Maldives in its orbit which is non-negotiable.

Significantly, while Muizzu has been announcing from the rooftop that he will send Indian military personnel packing from Maldives no sooner he takes over – he has made his stand clear even to Munu Mahawar, our High Commissioner in Male -- he has also categorically said that he won’t replace them with Chinese forces. The new President who keeps reiterating philosophically that his nation is “too small to get entangled in geopolitical rivalry”, obviously knows how foolhardy it is to lock horns with India.

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India Has Batted So Far, Now It Has to Field

So what if the balance of power in Maldives has tilted in Beijing’s favour? India is and will remain the resident power regardless of regime change in its periphery. There is no reason on earth to get alarmed or demoralised. We need to keep our heads down and work quietly to a plan.

India sensibly made big investments, particularly in infrastructure, it can now fall back on. The time has come to tend to the big and small projects that were launched when the going was good for five long years. The Modi government must keep allocating funds generously for resource-hungry Maldives. Luckily, we do have deep enough pockets to spend lavishly.

New Delhi should heed Muizzu’s open invitation to "all the countries, India, China and all other countries as well” to invest in ports and logistics as well as set up a tax-free zone.

He is also banking on direct foreign investments for the ambitious expansion of the international airport to jump-start an economy that was hit by heavy debt and a decline in tourism during the COVID-19 pandemic. At this juncture, the country's public and government-guaranteed debt is about $7 billion, or 113.5 percent of GDP. India can cash in on all these opportunities.

I have said this before and I will say it again that at times it’s best to approach geopolitics like a game of cricket. Having batted long enough in Maldives, now it’s time for India to do the fielding. Batting does give you a sense of power and a heady feeling, but intelligent fielding can be a game-changer.

Moreover, India should repose faith in the common Maldivian as the umpire. I am not saying this just because the World Cup is underway but because cricket is full of life lessons for even nation-states.

(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.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Maldives   China-Maldives 

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