Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Nov 26, 2018
In his inauguration speech, President Solih referred only to India by name, and also reiterated that the Maldives was returning to the ‘India first’ foreign policy — both possible indicators of New Delhi’s ‘traditional sphere of influence’ assertion from the past.
Modi in Maldives: Sets the ball rolling for restoring old ties

The optics that the presence and participation of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the inauguration of President Ibrahim Mohamed ‘Ibu’ Solih of Maldives at capital Male on 17 November should provide the impetus for the restoration of bilateral ties, strained very badly under predecessor Abdulla Yameen. Modi’s internationally famous hug of the Maldivian President should also sent a message all round that India would stand by Solih, who would need all the hands-holding that would be required as he steers the four-party coalition through the next five years, with the Maldivian civil society providing the fifth pillar.

According to local media reports, Modi was the only Head of State or Head of Government to be present at the inauguration. It was also because he was the only one in that rank reported to have been invited to do the honours, thus reflecting the new Maldivian leadership’s respect and responsiveness to the Indian position on ‘democracy issues’ of the past months in that country. In the larger regional/international plane, it also provided an occasion for a soft reassertion by New Delhi that Maldives is a part of India’s ‘traditional sphere of influence.’

This soft re-launch of the Indian re-assertion was/is a message that should reach India’s western allies as much as other non-regional players, friends or adversaries. For, as may have been visible from the unfolding ‘democracy developments’ (?) in shared neighbour Sri Lanka, the West’s over-statement of support for one, chosen domestic stake-holder in what is nothing more than power-politics at its worst, may have already contributed to the vitiation of the atmosphere for a possible resolution of the core issues, going beyond the current ‘constitutional crises.’

This had happened in the case of Maldives too earlier, where the over-reaction of the West to an evolving domestic political situation only helped harden the attitude of ‘beleaguered’ Yameen, who could inflict greater damage only on local adversaries and the institutions that they claimed to protect their rights. Restoration of those institutions and holding Yameen answerable to his actions of omissions and commissions is among the top points on President Solih’s 116-point agenda for the first 100 days in office — broken into first day, first week, first month and first three months, etc.

India having backed the West after a point, and sort of became the front-line State in their collective political war for the restoration of democracy in the tiny archipelago nation, seems to have made a difference. It also has drawn a difference between Maldives and Sri Lanka, at least as yet. India entered the Maldivian scene at a late stage and needed to stay close to the evolving situation, vitiated by all stake-holders. In Sri Lanka, almost from the beginning of the current crisis, it has stayed alone and aloof, as a silent yet concerned observer without taking sides, so as to sound credible and acceptable, if and when any need arose, for New Delhi to counsel the domestic stake-holders in that country. Whether India should and would enter such a phase is another question that New Delhi should be already asking itself.

Largest cabinet

Solih’s MDP-led four-party coalition has begun well by negotiating the number and berths for each of the four partners in the ruling coalition. As coalition compulsions dictate, the 20-strong Cabinet is also the largest, but then the Government still intends keeping the costs of ministerial management low, compared to the Yameen team.

Reflecting in a way, the perceived support-base in the partnership, the MDP gets the largest 40 percent share, followed by billionaire-politician Gasim Ibrahim’s Jumhooree Party (JP) 25, followed by 20 percent for former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s group, which has since moved the courts for the ownership and leadership of Yameen’s PPM. Religion-centric Adhaalath Party (AP) gets 15 percent ministerial share, at times considered disproportionately high to its political presence and vote-share, but then the hardship that its leadership went through under the Yameen regime.

President Solih has also rewarded AP leader, Sheikh Imran Abdulla with the coveted Home portfolio, in honour of his being the leader from the original Joint Opposition (JO) to have served the longest term in Yameen’s prison. The MDP has retained Foreign Ministry, and the choice of former Parliament Speaker, Abdulla Shahid, was almost a foregone conclusion. Having held the portfolio under the Gayoom Government earlier, Shahid is considered knowledgeable, meticulous and less flamboyant/abrasive compared to some of his MDP contenders for the job. From an Indian perspective, he is a ready and unflinching friend of India, through and through.

The MDP has also retained the Defence portfolio, and in Bengaluru-educated Mariya Ahmed Didi, the nation gets its first woman Defence Minister — a la incumbent Nirmala Sitharaman in India (?). In the warrant of precedence, so to say, Mariya Didi comes after Foreign Minister Shahid, and is in turn followed by Home Minister Imran. The three come only after President Solih and Vice President Faisal Naseem from Gasim’s JP, as the President is also the Head of the Cabinet, as is under the American scheme.

Destabilising factors?

Only days prior to the inauguration, the leaders of the four coalition partners, namely President Nasheed (MDP), Gayoom (PPM-Rebel), Gasim Ibrahim (JP) and Sheikh Imran (AP) met with the President and Vice-President Elects, and resolved to meet at least once a month to ensure the smooth functioning of the Government. Be it as it may, there are deep-seated ideological and personality differences among ministers from individual partners, even in their own vast and varied interpretations of democracy, for instance, and to suit their own immediate circumstances. Such an attitude and approach alone torpedoed the first pro-democracy presidency of MDP’s Nasheed, with extra-coalition factors capitalising on them only at later stages.

The immediate concern for the pro-coalition backs in the social media is the excessive credit that is being given to the JP and the Gasim family. While Gasim’s man is Vice President, he himself has become the post-poll Speaker of Parliament, which job however he had done with great credit and acumen, while drafting the 2008 democracy Constitution. Having failed to make his fourth wife, Aishath Nahula, JP’s vice presidential candidate in the face of internal strife while he was in self-exile in Germany, Gasim has now got her sworn in as the Minister for Transport and Civil Aviation.

Gasim’s JP President Ali Waheed is the new Tourism Minister, one of the most important ministerial berths in the Maldivian context. Waheed was the MDP Chairman when he had to run for global cover under the Yameen leadership, joined and became JP’s president when he found himself being sidelined by the MDP leadership while there. But the immediate issue is of Gasim getting for his party important portfolios that have an immediate relation to his vast businesses, including resorts and civil aviation. That the JP is said to hold a 25 percent vote-share still is what should make them all sit up ahead of the parliamentary polls, only months from now.

While the AP is likely to stay with the Government and the MDP as long as religion and Israel do not become an administrative/policy issue, as under the short-circuited Nasheed presidency (2008-12), the same cannot be said of the Gayoom party. Gayoom’s twin-daughter Yumna is the new Minister for Cultural Affairs, replacing the other, Dunya, who was in and out of the Yameen Government even when their father had begun opposing his half-brother. Their brother, Faaris Maumoon, who too suffered in Yameen’s prison as their father, a presidential aspirant, has been named a parliament representative on the anti-graft watch-dog, but then he is not the one to settle for it.

Including Foreign Minister Shahid and Defence Minister Mariya Didi, at least four of the new team were incumbent parliamentarians and had to vacate their seats in the American-model Cabinet. That could mean fresh parliamentary polls in the immediate future, where the coalition gets the opportunity to prove their unity to the domestic supporters and international backers — and at the same time, trounce Yameen with his unexpectedly high 42 percent vote-share backing, all ahead of the parliamentary polls that are due by March next year.

In between, the Solih leadership has also to prove to the nation that it means business in terms of brining Yameen and his cohorts to book for all the alleged wrong-doings under their care. Unlike the Nasheed presidency before his, the Solih leadership has to desist multiple pulls and pressures from within the coalition, and prove to the hyper-sensitive civil society backers that they are not as vindictive and unjustified as predecessor Yameen in fixing ‘accountability’ in democracy and corruption-related issues that they have flagged against him ahead of the polls.

India first

At his inauguration speech, President Solih referred only to India by name, and also reiterated that Maldives was returning to the ‘India first’ foreign policy — both possible indicators of New Delhi’s ‘traditional sphere of influence’ assertion from the past. Both President Solih and his more influential party boss, Nasheed, have also reiterated their pre-poll commitment to revisit/audit China-funded projects, first to fix the real costs and possible corruption at the Maldivian end, and secondly, to try and work out early repayment schedules than may have been agreed upon.

President Solih has accepted Prime Minister Modi’s invitation to visit India on an early date, which is what his predecessors, Nasheed and Yameen, too, had done in their time — making New Delhi their first overseas destination after becoming President. He has also invited Modi to be in Male soon, on an official visit. Whenever they take place, these visits are bound to address key issues, including Maldives’ current financial crisis, requiring $300-400 million, for starters.

The new Maldivian leadership has also addressed both India and the US, among other friendly nations, to help out with funding to close the China debts, if only for Maldives not having to fall into a ‘debt-trap’ of the Chinese kind. In a way, it is the response, pace and price that such ‘replacement aid’ would entail that could in effect define/re-define ‘new Maldives’ future approach towards India and the West on the one hand, and China, on the other. In turn, it would mean, officials/diplomats in Male, Delhi, Washington and European capitals should be burning midnight oil from now on, to find a way out of an impending economic mess in Maldives even as China keeps its oil burning, waiting to know what may be in store!

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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