As Prime Minister Narendra Modi has decided to visit Maldives to attend the swearing-in ceremony of Ibrahim Mohamed Solih as the island nation’s new President on November 17, New Delhi has hinted out categorically that it will reclaim its political, diplomatic and economic influences in the strategically important country where under the Abdulla Yameen regime, China ruled the roost. To the extent that Maldives was facilitated to become part of China’s complex and impervious Belt and Road Initiative in the Indian Ocean region.
In the past five years, while island nation’s traditional India-first policy was diluted, the pro-China Yameen regime also ensured that Indian companies didn’t matter in any infrastructure project nor any individual who had a slightest leaning towards India was allowed to rest in peace. In March 2015, the Indian Prime Minister cancelled his visit to Maldives in the last minute as the country had plunged into political turmoil; former President Mohamed Nasheed had been sentenced to 13-year jail term.
Maldives’ relations with India nosedived further when Abdulla Yameen imposed emergency in the country in February 2018 after the Supreme Court ordered release of a group of opposition leaders from jail. Apex court judges, including Chief Justice who formed part of judgment on political prisoners’ release, were also put behind the bars.
Completely darkened by arrogance, President Abdulla Yameen didn’t spare even his step brother and former Maldivian president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom from thrusting into jail in his attempt to suppress dissent in the country. Male rejected visa renewals for Indians who were legally working.
This year, it turned down India’s invitation to participate in biennial eight-day ‘Milan’ naval exercise and asked India to take back two helicopters it had gifted to the island country for its maritime security.
The September 24 presidential polls, however, took wind out of Yameen’s sail when electoral outcome went in favour of opposition presidential candidate Mohamed Solih. India was the first country in the world to welcome the polls’ outcome. China which pumped in huge amount of money in Maldives to deepen its political, economic and strategic footprint, had not realised that the table would turn against Abdulla Yameen in such a manner by the people of the island nation. It grudgingly welcomed Mohamed Solih’s election as the new President of Maldives.
Former Maldivian president Nasheed whose supporters played a crucial role in creating an atmosphere in favour of opposition candidate Mohamed Solih, has already declared that all infra projects handed over to China during Abdulla Yameen’s presidency will be reviewed. An estimated $1.3 billion is owed by the island nation to China--more than a quarter of its GDP. Of the total Chinese investment in the Indian Ocean archipelago, $830 million was pumped in to upgrade the Maldives airport and build 2-km bridge to connect the capital Male with the airport island.
Several critics have warned that the debt-ridden island nation may see its situation turning like Sri Lanka, which was forced to give away Hambantota port on a 99-year lease to China in December 2017 in exchange for $1.8 billion loan it had taken to develop the project. China is also engaged in the construction of 25-story hospital and other infra projects in Male. But construction exercise was not only business China was prepared to limit itself, it had its eyes on the country’s islets also.
According to Nasheed, China has taken on lease not only Feydhoo Finolhu islet but also 15 other islets of 1,192 scattered coral islands which make up the country. In 2017, to the detriment of India, Maldives signed Free Trade Agreement with China. But patience paid dividend. The just concluded presidential polls brought a major relief to India. It had, though, voiced its concern when the presidential election was announced.
It feared that a free and fair election in the island nation would not be possible unless democratic institutions, including parliament and judiciary, were allowed to work in a free and transparent manner. Nonetheless when results were out, Maldivian opposition camp found to its dismay the outcome coming beyond its expectations-- Solih had clinched his victory from the jaw of Yameen-dictated imperious regime.
Relieved India has now its task cut out: The election has allowed Delhi to wrest control of the strategically significant nation from China and an encore to this will be completed when Modi joins the swearing-in ceremony of Solih as new Maldivian President next week. No Chinese leader has been invited for the ceremony. However, beyond diplomacy and politics, India needs to understand that Maldives’ expectations from Delhi are very high.
It needs money to build infrastructure and security from external aggression. Is India ready for such task?