The Opposition — PPM-PNC combine — has called upon New Delhi, along with Sri Lanka and Pakistan, to help obtain freedom for Yameen.
Even as the Government of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has been busy unveiling the India-gifted COVID-19 vaccine in the Maldives, the Opposition PPM-PNC combine too has knocked at New Delhi’s doors — to ensure freedom for former President Abdulla Yameen, who is currently serving a jail term for money laundering. His release alone, under the law, can facilitate his contesting the next presidential polls, due in 2023.
The two, near-simultaneous, episodes come ahead of the nation-wide local council elections (LCE) scheduled for 10 April, which have been postponed by a year due to the pandemic. Apart from the immediacy of the election battle, which is the touchstone of the decade-old democracy in the country, the vaccine itself will further unfetter the nation’s mainstay tourism economy in the coming weeks and months.
India has provided the Maldives with 100,000 doses of Covaxin, which has been manufactured in India. President Solih, in an address to the nation, said that the vaccine brought with it new hope for the nation, and thanked India for the free shipment. Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid, as has become habitual with him of late, thanked India in Hindi for the vaccine, which UN Secretary-General António Guterres, among others, has also applauded.
Apart from Covaxin from India, the Solih Government has also ordered 700,000 doses of Covishield, an alternative, from elsewhere. However, in a tweet, Parliament Speaker and former President Mohammed Nasheed, who is also the ruling MDP chief, said that he ‘very much wished to be administered the Covishield’ against India’s Covaxin.
For India, as a responsible neighbour, supplying the COVID-19 vaccine to nations in the neighbourhood is in furtherance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. It is part of the non-vocalised ‘human security’ aspect in predecessor Manmohan Singh’s commitment that India would remain the ‘net-provider of security’ in/for the region. It also needs to be noted that not a single Indian has protested his Government’s meaningful initiative, despite stressful times nearer home, underscoring the ancient Indian concept of ‘Vasudeva Kudumpagam’ in Sanskrit, meaning ‘The world is one family’ — which recognises the cause of mutual dependence and for the relatively better-off to help the rest. There is an equivalent to the same in every Indian language with the Sangam Tamil literature, for instance, declaring, ‘Yaadhum oore, yavarum kelir.’
Significantly, the Opposition PPM-PNC combine has since called upon New Delhi, along with Sri Lanka and Pakistan, to help obtain freedom for Yameen. This was after the High Court confirmed a trial court order, convicting Yameen in a money-laundering case during his presidency, and sentencing him to five years in prison with a US$ 5 million fine.
Tagging Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and his counterparts Mahinda Rajapaksa (Sri Lanka) and Imran Khan (Pakistan), Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed, heading Yameen’s legal team, sounded over-dramatic when he urged them to “help avoid catastrophic civil unrest” caused by “dubious and fabricated charges” upheld by a ‘politically-driven’ Judicial Service Commission (JSC). Jameel, the first of the two impeached Vice-Presidents when Yameen was in office, is also an Advisor to the Opposition combine.
No marks for guessing which among the three nations the Yameen camp is seriously appealing to — India. Sri Lanka is home to a steady flow of Maldivian expatriates, who also use the Colombo Airport as a major transit-point. The ruling MDP has an ‘IOU’ viz Colombo, too. In 2016, then Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera and Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake worked independent of India’s Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar — now Indian External Affairs Minister — for the common purpose of obtaining ‘prison leave’ for MDP’s Nasheed, to travel to the UK for spinal treatment, when Yameen was in power.
However, Pakistan’s stance on Jameel’s tweet is quizzical, as the incumbent Solih Government has repeatedly challenged Islamabad wanting to raise the post-Article 370 ‘Kashmir situation’ in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Even more curious is the Yameen camp looking away from China, which used to be their mainstay in regional and international affairs vis a vis India. Much of India-Maldives strains during Yameen’s regime flowed from his excessively siding with Beijing, at the cost of traditional relations with New Delhi. This has also exposed China’s limitations in playing godfather in South Asian politics, after a similar experience in Sri Lanka, when incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the presidential polls of 2015.
This, however, is not the first time that the PPM-PNC combine has sought India’s intervention, otherwise an anathema to Team Yameen, who never tires of charging New Delhi with ‘interfering in the internal affairs’ of the Maldives. Earlier, when Indian Foreign Secretary Harshvardhan Shringla visited the country towards mid-November, an Opposition delegation, led by Yameen’s predecessor, Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik, now a senior advisor to the PPM-PNC combine, sought India’s intervention in the matter.
As President, Waheed had facilitated the delaying of criminal prosecution against predecessor Nasheed, now Speaker, for ordering the mid-night arrest of Criminal Court Chief Judge, Abdulla Mohamed, and holding him in solitary confinement in an otherwise uninhabited island. Waheed’s decision followed India seeking a ‘level-playing field’ in the controversy-ridden presidential polls of 2013, in which Yameen defeated Nasheed.
The Opposition’s desperation is understandable. The upcoming council elections is the last one before the presidential polls two years hence. Both sides are desirous of converting it into a referendum on the Solih leadership. Without a public face like Yameen’s, the Opposition cannot claim to be an alternative to the incumbent, independent of the former’s electoral defeat in 2018, that too as incumbent President.
Internally, too, there are ambitious competitors in Waheed and Jameel, both ‘outsiders’ to Team Yameen, and also a few others from the inside. Any preference for one could lead to others feeling disheartened, if not exiting the party. It could also upset the Opposition’s calculations, to be able to project themselves as a serious contender in the 2023 presidential polls.
The Opposition has now publicly contested the High Court’s 2-1 verdict, confirming the reconstituted trial court’s 3-0 order. It began with Jameel Ahmed, as lead defence lawyer, questioning the impartiality of the two ‘majority judges’ on the High Court Bench, and citing the observations of the dissenting third judge, in his defence.
Despite the Opposition initiative in seeking Indian intervention, opinion seems to be divided within the PPM-PNC combine, or there is a lack of communication even in the higher levels. At an Opposition conclave, which resolved to stage nation-wide protests against the High Court verdict, Dr Mohamed Muizu, Housing Minister under Yameen, declared without provocation, that ‘thousands of Indian soldiers’ were stationed in the Maldives, indicating a mindset devoid of truth.
Unarmed military pilots and technical personnel from India are stationed in the Maldives to man one helicopter and another Dornier fixed-wing aircraft gifted for exclusive use in humanitarian operations — always under the direction of the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF). After the 2011-12 incident in which anti-Nasheed, pro-Yameen protestors targeted the Indian High Commission, a handful of personnel from an Indian para-military force had to be stationed for ensuring the safety of the mission and people working there — and with the approval of the host Government. That’s all there is to the Indian military presence.
Before COVID-19 came in the way and postponed the polls scheduled for 4 April last year indefinitely, as many as 4,172 candidates, including independents, had filed their nominations, across the country. However, 71 of them have since withdrawn their nominations. In between, Parliament had to amend Article 231 of the Constitution to let the incumbents continue in office. It has since passed another amendment, to empower the Election Commission (EC) to conduct the local council elections, pending the nation-wide ‘health emergency’ in place, owing to the continued virulence of the pandemic.
The electoral fight is mainly between the ruling four-party coalition under President Solih’s MDP and the Yameen-centric PMC-PNC combine. Solih has since hosted only the second leaders’ meeting of the coalition partners, the first having been conducted on his assuming office, and it is considered crucial for a cohesive campaign by the ruling coalition.
Solih needs to ensure cohesiveness also within his own MDP cadres, as the pro-Nasheed group is apprehensive about alleged anti-incumbency, deriving from allegations of corruption, leading to the exit of two of the President’s ministerial colleagues. If nothing else, Solih now cannot allow the drift of the parliamentary poll kind, which brought down the ruling combine’s vote-share to 46 percent from a high of 58 percent, after Nasheed as party chief shooed away allies in seat-sharing even when their ministerial nominees continued in office.
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N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.Read More +