The Maldives churn in the Indian ocean

South Asian democracies have thrown curve balls at India's foreign policy at regular five-year intervals.  How it handles the likely result in the Maldives will be watched across the region.
The Maldives churn in the Indian ocean

After the success of the G20 summit, India must now contend with a possible diplomatic setback in its Indian Ocean neighbourhood. Maldives President Ibrahim "Ibu" Mohamed Solih, who declared his government's foreign policy as based on an "India First" principle, secured just 39.05 per cent of votes in the September 9 presidential election against his nearest opponent, Mohamed Muizzu, mayor of Male, who received 46.06 per cent of the votes. As no candidate crossed the halfway mark, a second round runoff will be held on September 30.

The atoll nation has a population of about five lakh people, with over 2,82,000 registered voters across some 180 islands. In the September 9 election, a total of 2,25,486 votes were polled. Former president Mohamed Nasheed, who split from the Maldivian Democratic Party of which he was a founder-leader after a bitter falling out with President Solih, floated a new party called the Democrats and fielded his candidate. This candidate received the third highest vote share of about 7.18 per cent, the difference between the first and second candidates.

Emerging as the king-maker, Nasheed has hinted at backing Muizzu's candidature in the second round. This is a U-turn for Nasheed in more than one respect. Muizzu is backed by former president Abdulla Yameen, a key figure behind Nasheed's 2012 ouster as president, now serving an 11-year jail term for corruption and ineligible to contest.

More significantly, Muizzu is reportedly also backed by a prominent Salafist NGO, Jamiyyathul Salaf. Maldives, a Sunni Muslim country of about 500,000 population, has seen religious extremism take root in the last two decades. Though the number of 250 is an estimate, more men and women from the Maldives are reported to have joined ISIS than from any other country.

Just last month, Nasheed said at an election meeting for his candidate that if Muizzu was elected, Maldivians would "lose their country". In 2019, as Speaker and head of the parliamentary committee on security, Nasheed declared that the Jamiyyathul Salaf "encourages terrorism" and held it responsible for the 2012 murder of a parliamentarian. Nasheed himself was a target of an assassination attempt by alleged Islamists in 2020 and escaped narrowly.

But at this point, Nasheed holds Solih responsible for sidelining him in the MDP and seems determined to prevent him from returning to office. He also blames the MDP for giving room to religious extremism, which he blames for the attempt on his life. This Indian Ocean theatre, with its large cast of characters, is unfolding against the backdrop of a sometimes open, sometimes quiet India-China rivalry for influence in the Maldives.

For India, whose Neighbourhood First policy is focussed on countering China's growing influence in South Asia, the prospect of Solih's defeat brings back memories of Abdulla Yameen's 2013-2018 presidency, during which Beijing got an open welcome in the Maldives. Finally, the Solih government revoked Yameen's changes to land laws that permitted foreigners to buy islands and shelved the 2017 free trade agreement with China.

The Maldives, comprising 26 atolls with over a thousand islands, occupies a strategic spread of the Indian Ocean close to international sea lanes. Abhay Kumar Singh of the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses describes the north-south archipelago as a "toll gate" between the Gulf of Aden and the Strait of Hormuz in the western Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca in the east, of strategic importance to India.

Beijing has remained influential in the Maldives even as Solih reached out to Delhi and rebalanced the country's foreign policy. Two days ahead of the election, the Sinemale Bridge, also known as the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, a vital connector between Male and the international airport on Hulumale island, marked five years of its opening. The MDP government has blamed the bridge as responsible for the huge debt the country owes China, but Maldives citizens believe it has transformed their lives for the better.

Beijing also continued to engage with politicians quietly over the five years of the Solih presidency, biding time and watching as Yameen led his high-profile India Out campaign, alleging the presence of Indian military personnel in the Maldives, ignoring government clarifications in the matter and accusing Solih of jeopardising the country's sovereignty and security. Moreover, news of attacks against Muslims in India has travelled quickly to the Maldives. Extremist groups used the Nupur Sharma controversy to build up anti-India sentiment, which played a big part in last year's attack on a Yoga Day event in Male.

But in this period, India concluded a defence pact with the Maldives to develop a coast guard base at the Uthuru Thila Falhu atoll, established a police training academy, and embarked on the construction of the Thilamale bridge, also known as the Greater Male Connectivity Project, to connect the capital Male with the islands of Villingli, Gulhifalhu and Thilafushi. It also positioned itself as a "first responder" under the rubric of SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region).

Muizzu, a religious conservative with family links to Jamiyyathul Salaf, has not made any comments that can be construed as pro-India or pro-China. However, his running mate Hussain Mohammed Latheef, aka Sembe, played a key role in the India Out campaign.

South Asian democracies have thrown curve balls at India's foreign policy at regular five-year intervals. Despite its proactive diplomacy in the region, Delhi is admired and reviled as a "big brother" in these countries. How it handles the likely result in the Maldives will be watched across the region for what it says about India's post-G20 clout and influence.

Nirupama Subramanian

Independent  journalist

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