Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Oct 25, 2021
Despite the intra-party tensions, Speaker Nasheed is working closely with President Solih on multiple fronts
Maldives: Back home, Nasheed meets Solih, helps clear clouds on India pact

Back home after five months, Maldives Parliament Speaker Mohammed Nasheed met with President Ibrahim Solih on Sunday, 24 October, days after declaring that he was ‘ready to work’ with his long-time. They met at the President’s Office, and discussed national economy, environment, and governance-system—which Nasheed wants changed from the present presidential form to a parliamentary scheme.

Earlier, at his maiden in-person news conference in Malé, Nasheed had said that before taking a decision on the transition to a parliamentary scheme, he would ‘dialogue’ with Solih , who had received his old friend and party boss, when the former flew in from London via Dubai. Now that he has held at least one round of discussions with Solih, Nasheed’s next move will be keenly watched.

Referring to the constitutionally-mandated ‘national referendum’ for such transition, Solih promised to act according to people’s wishes, which a decade ago had favoured the presidential form.

While overseas, where he underwent follow-up treatment for injuries sustained in a targeted bomb-blast in Malé on 6 May, Nasheed declared, ‘not to politically align’ with Solih, and demanded an early transition from presidential governance. Referring to the constitutionally-mandated ‘national referendum’ for such transition, Solih promised to act according to people’s wishes, which a decade ago had favoured the presidential form.

Factionalism in the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) had demoralised party supporters and cadres alike, and was reflected in the low turn-outs in the nation-wide local government elections (LGE) and the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party’s (MDP) organisational polls, held in April and September, respectively. If the more recent reconciliation mood prevails, the fear of a vertical-split following the mutually-contested results of the organisational polls may have evaporated, at least for now.

Staying in touch

Independent of Nasheed’s position on continuing with or rescheduling his transition demand, a clearer picture on mainstay MDP politics will emerge (only) when he clarifies his position on party primaries for choosing the 2023 presidential candidate. The Solih camp feels that the incumbent should have automatic nomination, and cite a contested provision in the party’s amended bye-laws.  Solih too has not announced his decision in the matter, leading to speculative arguments, all round.

Both President Solih and Speaker Nasheed are attending the UN Climate Change Conference (31 Oct-12 Nov) at Glasgow in the UK. En route, Solih visited the Dubai Expo, which Nasheed attended during his homeward trip. Within the country, Solih has been undertaking extensive tours of the islands, to review developmental projects and attend other public events in his capacity as President—and stay in touch with constituents and cadres alike.

Avoidable embarrassment

The seeming reproachment within the MDP leader of the ruling coalition has the potential to upset the party’s three allies in what still is a coalition government. They had contributed to Solih’s unprecedented first-round victory in the elections of2018, and have since reiterated their independent support for the presidential system.

In context, the timing of the leak of a fortnight-old President’s Office missive, removing the Maldives Police Service (MPS) from the care of the Home Ministry, headed by Imran Abdulla, leader of the Adhalaath Party (AP) ally, had led to avoidable multiple embarrassments to the Solih leadership as none else earlier. In the Parliament, Speaker Nasheed had clarified that under the new Act, the Home Ministry would now be in charge of policymaking.

Solih has been undertaking extensive tours of the islands, to review developmental projects and attend other public events in his capacity as President—and stay in touch with constituents and cadres alike.

A new twist was added when the Home Ministry ‘disappeared’ from the website of the President’s Office. However, Minister Imran saved the day for the coalition when he sent out what some described as a ‘meaningful tweet’ that there will be ‘obstructions when trying better things’—when implementing the new Police Act). After media analysts and Opposition politicians like former Home Minister and presidential aspirant Umar Naseer pointed out that the Constitution mandated ministerial supervision of individual departments, Solih restored the original scheme.

Indian defence pact ‘clean’

Chairing the Parliament session after 150 days, Speaker Nasheed reiterated his earlier ruling that the government’s ‘Uthuru Thilafalhu (UTF) agreement’ with India for constructing a ‘naval harbour’ for the Maldivian defence forces was ‘not secretive’ and also referred to the Parliament earlier asking the defence ministry for a copy of the same. Independently, the Information Commissioner has also directed the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) to disclose the agreement to a petitioner-media house.

Clearing all suspicions and criticisms, the government promptly presented the agreement to the Parliament’s Committee on National Security, popularly known as the ‘241 Committee’, for members to read, under rules of secrecy. Defence Minister Mariya Didi and team was present to offer clarifications. “There is nothing in the agreement that would directly impact on the sovereignty of Maldives,” Committee Chair, Mohamed Aslam, observed at the end of the panel session.

When the Opposition protested to the signing of the agreement during Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar in February, the Solih government had dismissed as ‘fake’, what Umar Naseer had distributed then. It is not known if the government would also act on the Information Commissioner’s directive, likewise. As coincidence would have it, addressing a defence conclave in New Delhi, Minister Mariya Didi said that bilateral relations were ‘stronger than ever’, and India had always been the first responder during every crisis.

Clearing all suspicions and criticisms, the government promptly presented the agreement to the Parliament’s Committee on National Security, popularly known as the ‘241 Committee’, for members to read, under rules of secrecy.

As if on cue, a day before the committee meeting, the Opposition held a rally in Malé, re-christened ‘India Military Out’, as if to save face, and indicating that they may be protesting only against what they claimed to be Indian ‘military presence’ in the country—and not necessarily against Indian developmental presence, as was their ‘cause’ earlier. This possibly owes to the Opposition’s belated realisation about popular support for India, which has been walking the proverbial extra mile to meet the needs and concerns of Maldives, at every turn of the COVID-19 pandemic.

India trains pilots

In an otherwise unrelated development but with implications for domestic politics, outgoing Indian High Commissioner Sunjay Sudhir has announced that three pilots of the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF) have returned after completing training on Dornier aircraft, the like of which New Delhi had gifted Maldives. Clarifying that India was also training the required technical staff, the High Commissioner said that the multiple training slots offered to the MNDF this year included 42 for aviation.

Given the periodicity of the Opposition’s ‘India Out’ campaign targeting almost every India-funded installation, including Maldives’s single-largest Thilamalé sea-bridge, and owing to the fact that it has failed to attract public support, Amb Sudhir reiterated that the India-funded police academy in southern Addu is ‘not an Indian asset’. The Maldives police would decide on its usage once handed over in the coming weeks, he said.

In his closing weeks as High Commissioner, Amb Sudhir also signed an MoU with Maldives’ Transport Minister Aishath Nahula, on regional maritime security and safety through long-range identification and tracking of ships, thus helping the host-nation to fulfil its obligations to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) without having to establish its own disaster centre. In addition, Maldives will receive Indian assistance for human resource capacity-building.

Tourism, the mainstay of Maldivian economy, was badly hurt after the pandemic hit, and Indians now account for every fourth tourist in the country.

In a series of interviews to the local media, Sudhir denied that India had slowed down issuance of visas to Maldivians. Unlike as portrayed in the social media, for ‘Maldives there is a facility that is much higher than e-visa. Which is no-visa’, Sudhir said. The misunderstanding may be due to the locals continuing to crowd the Indian High Commission for visas as in the past, despite the new system, involving prior alert on the date and time-slot for the purpose.

A ‘miniscule handful is trying to spread hatred towards India’ and a few media outlets which have ‘made it their profession’ to speak ill of India, do not represent the true emotions of Maldivians, the High Commissioner declared. As he pointed out, ‘India has always been the first responder in times of crises… The pool of goodwill … in Maldives towards India, is just immense’.

High tourist footfall

As coincidence would have it, the Maldivian government has announced how the larger northern neighbour remained the top source-market after the nation opened up for foreign tourists on 15 July last year. Tourism, the mainstay of Maldivian economy, was badly hurt after the pandemic hit, and Indians now account for every fourth tourist in the country.

In the midst of speculative reports that Indian tourists could go West, now that the US has opened up to Indians, post-pandemic, High Commissioner Sudhir, held a series of round-table discussions with local trade, tour operators, travel agents and writers, and also high-level officials from Out-bound Travel Market (OTM) Mumbai, to promote Maldives in India, more intensily.

Buttressing the High Commissioner’s arguments, though from a totally different perspective,Maldivian Finance Minister, Ibrahim Ameer pointed out in a tweet, how the erstwhile Yameen government’s termination of the Indian infra major, GMR Group’s construction-cum-concession contract for the Malé airport had cost the nation a whopping US $13 billion in lost profits. Had the airport been completed in 2014 as planned, the nation would have received a record 6.7-million tourists before COVID-19, and the GDP would have stood US $10 billion by 2020 instead of the current US$5 billion.

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