The volatile politics in Male at this crucial juncture can change the course of the Presidential race and the future of big-ticket infrastructure in the nation in a jiffy.
As the Maldives enters into a complicated and heated presidential election in September this year, a lot more than the top job hangs in the balance. Over the past decade, India and China have been engaged in a tug-of-war to consolidate influence in these isles. Big-ticket civilian infrastructure and developmental assistance, that are critical requirements for the Maldives, have become the arena where these powers are trying to outdo each other. The election outcome will decide in whose favour the scales tip and is, therefore, vital for the larger geopolitics of the Indian Ocean.
This backdrop imbues a greater significance to the recent Maldives visit of India’s External Affairs Minister (EAM), Dr. S. Jaishankar. During the visit, India handed over two sea ambulances to the Maldives and inked three developmental pacts. Jaishankar also stated, “India is always willing to meet the requirements and the needs of the Maldives both for itself and for the larger region.” Such statements are indicative of the important position of the Maldives in India’s security calculus and Indo-Pacific strategies.
< style="color: #0069a6;">Big-ticket civilian infrastructure and developmental assistance, that are critical requirements for the Maldives, have become the arena where these powers are trying to outdo each other.
The security dimension has provided added motivation to India’s renewed attention towards the island nation since President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) came to power in 2018. The period before that, when the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) was in charge, witnessed a pro-China tilt in the Maldives’ foreign policy under President Abdulla Yameen. Not only had the Yameen administration been a vocal critic of India but had also granted key concessions to China. By the end of his term, Maldives had joined the Belt and Road Initiative, a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) had been signed between Beijing and Male, and China had completed major infrastructural projects, most notably a significant upgrade of the Maldives’ main international airport and a bridge linking Male to the island of Hulhumale. Cumulatively, these investments have raked in nearly US$ 1.4 billion in Chinese debt, an alarmingly high figure for a nation with a gross domestic product of US$ 5.4 billion. Yameen’s actions were met with harsh criticism from the opposition who were quick to draw parallels to the plight of neighbouring Sri Lanka.
2018 marked an important year for India-Maldives relations. With the ousting of Yameen and MDP's victory in the presidential elections, the political tide was reversed. The Solih administration initiated an “India First” policy and pulled out of the FTA with China. Indian assistance in the form of a US$ 1.4 billion aid package was also secured by Male. The most notable agreement within this package was the ‘Greater Male Connectivity Project’—the nation’s largest infrastructure scheme—that intends to link the capital Male with Vilimale, Thilafushi, and Gulhifalhu islands through sea bridges and causeways. Additionally, India is also aiding the construction of the Hanimaadhoo international airport in north Maldives which will be capable of receiving 1.3 million tourists a year. In the southern city of Addu, a Police academy, another India-assisted project, was recently inaugurated and the two nations reached an in-principle agreement for India to open a consulate in Addu. Further, nine community-based development projects were recently launched under the High Impact Community Development Projects scheme that will be developed using a US$ 5.6 million grant by the Indian government.
Several features of the Indian aid are worth noting. First, India’s assistance, unlike China’s, comes in the form of either large grants or credit at an affordable rate. Former President Mohammed Nasheed has publicly differentiated between India’s “super low-cost development assistance” and the “eye-wateringly expensive commercial loans that leave the country mired in debt.” Secondly, Indian infrastructure projects are seen as “genuine help from a friend” in many political quarters in the Maldives as India allows the Maldivian ministries and agencies to take all decisions on the projects with complete transparency. As emphasised by EAM Jaishankar and the Indian High Commissioner Sanjay Sudhir on different occasions, the Indian projects are “for Maldivians, of Maldivians, and by the Maldivians”. Lastly, India’s assessment of and aid towards the development of Maldives spreads beyond the Male region. Its big-ticket projects in North and South Maldives substantiate such statements and showcase New Delhi’s earnest commitment to its neighbour’s development.
However, in recent months, a few India-backed projects have received flak for causing environmental damage in the Maldives. Most recently, the Indian company AFCONS Infrastructure has been charged with a fine of MVR 69 million for causing damage to the Villimale reef. Simultaneous to these developments, China has inked a couple of solar energy deals with Male. The Maldives’ extreme vulnerability to climate change and sensitive ecology make addressing climate change and environmental preservation the top priority. These events also indicate that while India may have successfully regained lost ground in the Maldives, the Chinese are still lurking and will pounce on any slip-ups by New Delhi.
< style="color: #0069a6;">The Maldives’ extreme vulnerability to climate change and sensitive ecology make addressing climate change and environmental preservation the top priority.
While current political winds in the Maldives might favour India, the situation could change drastically if the MDP does not retain the presidency. Like China from 2018 onwards, India could suddenly find itself out of favour in Male if the PPM and its allies emerge victorious. Yameen and the opposition have been spearheading an ‘India-Out’ campaign that attempts to fuel and exploit anti-India sentiments. The campaign focuses on features of India’s investment in Maldives, the defence partnership, and India’s net-security provisions to claim that New Delhi is eroding the Maldives’ sovereignty. Even though the movement is propelled by a degree of political opportunism, it showcases how China has been successful in its elite capture with the PPM. Despite the banning of the campaign, in the run-up to the presidential race, the ‘India-Out’ rhetoric is likely to be intensified by the opposition. There is a history of politicisation of India’s projects and security provisions in the Maldives that has put strains on India-Maldives relations previously. Such political undercurrents are likely to stir a degree of concern in New Delhi.
The recent conviction of Abdulla Yameen in a money-laundering and corruption case is likely to disqualify him from competing for the position, allaying some of India’s anxieties. However, the PPM’s refusal to field an alternate candidate and their resolve to appeal the charges before the higher courts make the Presidential election harder to predict. If Yameen is acquitted in time to file his candidacy, the opposition will receive a massive boost in their campaign.
On the other hand, the MDP house is also in disarray. President Solih and his one-time mentor and party chief, Mohammed Nasheed, bitterly contested the party primaries for the presidential candidacy in which the former has bested his opponent. The no-holds-bar competition between the two has shown the fissures within the MDP. Allegations of voter fraud and vote rigging were levelled by the Nasheed faction that refused to accept the election results. Given the scenario, the idea that Nasheed could break away and contest the Presidential elections independently is not a far cry. Concerns about the division of the MDP voter base to the benefit of the opposition parties are rightly being raised. While both these contestants share similar positive attitudes towards India, their infighting could possibly work to the detriment of New Delhi’s interests.
< style="color: #0069a6;">President Solih and his one-time mentor and party chief, Mohammed Nasheed, bitterly contested the party primaries for the presidential candidacy in which the former has bested his opponent.
As things stand, Indian civilian developmental projects maintain a slight edge over Chinese aid in Male as India’s efforts over the past five years have increased its goodwill within the Maldives. However, it would be wrong to discount China’s shadow in the region. Beijing has been successful in gaining a crucial foothold in the nation through its sustained contacts with the PPM. The volatile politics in Male at this crucial juncture can change the course of the presidential race and the future of big-ticket infrastructure in the nation in a jiffy. New Delhi and Beijing, like the candidates in this presidential race, will be eagerly hoping that come September the scales weigh heavier on their side.
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