On December 17, 2018, President Ibrahim Solih of Maldives paid an official visit to New Delhi, India. The symbolism was not lost, in fact it was meant to time with a month since the president took office and a new dispensation took over the reins of governance in Male. So significant had these elections and the change of government been for India that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is in his last year of office before India heads for parliamentary elections in 2019, attended the swearing in ceremony of Solih. And why not? India had watched with dismay as Maldives steadily slid into anarchy and dictatorship under the last President Abdulla Yameen.
Yameen had rendered the Maldivian Parliament irrelevant; had convicted the former President Mohamed Nasheed, who had openly been pro-Indian, under the Anti-Terrorism Act of Maldives and sentenced him to a 13-year jail term, sacked the Chief Justice and another judge of the Supreme Court. Even as Maldives slid into anarchy, religious fundamentalism was expanding with many Maldivian youth joining the jihad in Syria. Further, Maldives’ national debt ballooned to almost USD 3 billion by most estimates, though an independent committee would be probing the exact extent.
All of this mattered to India as Maldives is a mere 700 km away from India’s Lakshwadeep island chain and is an integral part of the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). As an outpost on the Indian Ocean, located along major sea lanes in the Indian Ocean through which much of the world’s trade, especially energy supplies from the Gulf, takes place, it certainly figures on India’s strategic radar, and has been traditionally considered to be part of India’s sphere of influence.
In 1988 when the Maldives was raided by Tamil militants from Sri Lanka who sought to overthrow the government and take over the island nation, India rushed military aid on the request of the Maldivian government and thwarted the takeover. Since then India has invested heavily in Maldives through military, educational, business, and humanitarian aid. When in 2015 a shortage of drinking water gripped the island nation, India rushed fresh drinking water there.
Political stability and multi-party democracy in Maldives are what India wants there.
When Yameen imposed emergency rule in the country, along with the US and EU, India’s ministry of external affairs issued a statement, unusual from India’s normally staid and neutral stance on the internal affairs of any country: “We are deeply dismayed that the Government of Maldives has extended the State of Emergency for a further 30 days … It is important to ensure that all democratic institutions are allowed to function in a fair and transparent manner in accordance with the Constitution.”
For India, also important was the fact that Maldives seemed to be sliding into Chinese control. Under Yameen’s rule, the Maldives welcomed Chinese investments for major infrastructure projects and also signed a free trade agreement. The Laamu Atoll link road, for instance, was China’s gift to the island nation. Because of its strategic location, Maldives was important for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project. According to Maldivian Foreign Minister Abdulla Shaheed, one of their main concerns was the speed with which the Yameen government rushed the free trade agreement with China in parliament — a mere 10 minutes. By some estimates, its debt to China for various infrastructure projects alone is around USD 2.5 billion.
For Indian analysts, this was yet another instance of China making inroads into India’s neighborhood and increasing its footprint in the Indian Ocean region. While Yameen’s predecessor and former president Nasheed had been firmly pro-Indian, Yameen was not only drawing closer to China, his government had repeatedly sought to downgrade relations with India. For instance, he had wanted to return the three Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopters (ALH) which India had gifted to Maldives. Indian investments and workers in Male were harassed, often visas were not extended, and Indian tourist traffic to Maldives — the island nation’s economic mainstay — halted.
India announced financial assistance worth USD 1.4 billion to Maldives. Apart from this, India also promised 1000 additional slots over next 5 years for training and capacity building in diverse fields.
Some analysts even advocated an Indian intervention in the island to restore democratic governance and the rule of law there. Hence, the restoration of democracy has heralded a new pro-India government in power and brought good tidings for India.
Modi was the first to congratulate the new Maldivian president. In a press release, the Ministry of External Affairs of India welcomed the election results, noting that: “In keeping with our ‘Neighborhood First’ Policy, India looks forward to working closely with the Maldives in further deepening our partnership.” Modi also traveled to Male to attend the swearing-in ceremony of Solih, finally visiting the country which he had been unable to earlier because of the internal turmoil. In Modi’s "Neighborhood First" policy, Maldives had been the only country left unvisited. In Male, he also promised to render every possible help for the country to achieve “sustainable social and economic development”.
In Delhi on a visit preceding Solih’s, Abdulla Shahid and Ibrahim Ameer, the Maldivian Foreign and Finance Ministers, highlighted that they would resume their “India First” policy, which had been followed by governments preceding Yameen, reiterating that the “people of Maldives acknowledge that India has always stood by them”. The “India First” policy acknowledges the bilateral aid and assistance that India had been providing over the years. Even Yameen had acknowledged as much, though he had effectively done away with the policy.
A pressing issue for the current Maldivian government is the massive external debt it has inherited. The government’s first priority was to stabilize the economy and repay its loans. Corruption had reached unprecedented levels under Yameen and the new government was looking to appoint an independent committee to look into individual deals.
However, the new Maldivian government is also clear that it would not cancel or go back on any agreements signed with other countries, including China, in order to maintain business and investor confidence, Foreign Minister Shaheed announced. To that end, it has been seeking investments and assistance from India.
Keen to use the opportunity presented to its advantage, India has also made a number of pledges to the island nation. During his meeting with Solih in Delhi, exactly a month to a day since Solih took office, Modi reiterated India’s “Neighborhood First” policy, assuring Solih of “all possible support to Maldives in realizing its aspirations for socio-economic development, and strengthening of democratic and independent institutions.” India announced financial assistance worth USD 1.4 billion to Maldives. Apart from this, India also promised 1000 additional slots over next 5 years for training and capacity building in diverse fields, including judicial, policing and law-enforcement, audit and financial management, local governance, community development, IT, e-governance, sports, media, etc. The two sides have also agreed to intensify cooperation in the areas of training and capacity building of the Maldives Police Service and Maldives National Defense Force.
On his part, Solih reaffirmed his government’s commitment to an “India First” policy. In order to make amends for the slights made by the Yameen regime, the two sides also signed an Agreement on Visa Facilitation.
Nevertheless, Maldives will be looking at other avenues to develop their cash strapped and damaged economy. As categorically stated by its finance minister, Maldives will also not go back on international agreements signed by the Yameen regime. Therefore, the island nation will be doing a delicate balancing act between India and China, even as India has to contend with China’s footprint in the Indian Ocean nation.