Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Mar 29, 2019
Swaraj’s Maldives visit lends economic direction to political ties

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s two-day official visit to Maldives in mid-March has given more meaning and purpose to the bilateral relations between the two countries than already. Coming as it did after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s participation at the Inauguration of President Ibrahim Mohammed ‘Ibu’ Solih in November last, followed by the latter’s State visit to New Delhi, Sushma’s Male visit sought to give specific direction to the economic commitments made earlier.

Modi was the only Head of State or Government invited for Solih’s Inauguration. Like his predecessors, the President also made New Delhi his first overseas port-of-call. Earlier, India had made an unprecedented political commitment for the restoration of democracy in Maldives, by condemning specific actions of former President Abdulla Yameen, who is now in prison, facing a massive money-laundering case.

The timing of Sushma’s visit should underscore the importance both nations attach to bilateral relations. Parliamentary elections are due in the two nations and their leaders, especially on the Maldivian side, are tied down to campaign work. Though not contesting the polls this time, Sushma had remained a vocal campaigner for her ruling BJP-led NDA combine at the Centre.

Identifying projects

In the Male visit, Sushma was accompanied by a high-power official delegation, including Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale. The presence of the political and diplomatic mandarins of the all-important External Affairs Ministry under-scored the importance India attached to the visit. It also ensured continuity, providing medium and long-term continuity, independent of political twists and turns, if any, on either side.

With furtherance of economic cooperation as the basic theme of the visit, the two sides signed an agreement for India’s Export-Import (Ex-IM) Bank extending a $800-m line-of-credit to finance infrastructure projects in Maldives, identified by the Solih administration. This was part of the $ 1.4-b aid that India had promised during President Solih’s New Delhi visit.

The completion of initial paper-work on identifying the projects showed the seriousness with which the two Governments have approached it. The list includes re-locating the Male port to the industrial island of Thilafushi and creating water and drainage infrastructure on 30 islands. As Maldivians officials explained, detailed project reports on the water/drainage projects, for instance, were submitted ahead of the signing ceremony, in which Sushma & team participated. This went beyond the customary political commitment in such matters.

Despite air-connectivity between islands and atolls, especially between them and capital Male, sea-connectivity remains a problem for most residents in many islands. The size of individual island-population, often not more than a handful of thousands and at times hundreds, has made infrastructure management uneconomical and welcome. It is more so in the case of social infrastructure like education, health-care and job-creation.

Maldivian plight

This in turn has created a space-pressure on capital Male and less than a handful of urban centres. Aptly, in Maldivian terminology, they are often called as ‘population centres’. Male City houses a third of the nation’s 400,000 people. It is also top on the list of South Asian capitals with the highest density of population. This in turn is also attributed as among the chief causes of broken families, highest divorce-rate in the region, nearly orphaned children -- both boys and girls -- drug-menace and the formation of street-corner gangs. Global studies, aid and assistance in this regard have not been persistent and consistent, with the result the benefits too have remained inconsistent through the past years and decades.

On a different plane, there is also the larger Maldivian concerns about the long-term consequences of climate-change, and the possibility of the nation’s islands sinking under raising sea-levels one after the other. All of it requires more scientific studies than already, with workable solutions at the local-level identified and put in place before it became too late.

Given its vast expertise and experience in ocean and climate studies, India as the larger neighbour can study Maldives’ plight for its own benefit. India can also consider putting in place mechanisms, big and small, to arrest first, and address later, the ill-effects of raising sea-levels on Maldives.

Whether ‘Male population’ issue or ‘climate-change’ concerns, they all have often become a part of domestic politics in Maldives. This has also robbed them of the continuous governmental and international efforts required to address them, over the short, medium and long terms. An early-bird advantage that India now has in Maldives could well lead to a sustained effort, whose benefits too could start flowing early and remain continuous.

China’s presence & design

Early on during President Solih’s New Delhi visit, the two sides clarified that the $ 1.4-b Indian aid would not go towards Maldives reimbursing any part of the massive China credit, incurred during the Yameen rule. If not directly and financially, India would need to help Maldives on the political and diplomatic front, in finding external resources to re-fund/re-finance China’s projects/credits in the Indian Ocean archipelago.

During Sushma’s visit, Maldivian officials reiterated that they were still digging into past records, to identify the loan-component of Chinese credit to Yameen’s regime, and also moneys that might have been diverted from Government projects during the time. While domestic pressure on the Solih Government would be for arraigning the guilty for such diversion, the Maldivian State still cannot escape repay or re-schedule such payments to China.

The Maldives-China agreements on the credit front, including those for the Male-Hulhumale sea-bridge to the airport-island, are not in the public domain. Given, however, the Chinese proclivity to provide for land take-over of the Hambantota deal with neighbouring Sri Lanka, a debt-equity swap is something that the world should not be surprised, if it came to that.

For now at least, Sri Lanka has effectively scuttled possibilities of China anything more than a business base in Sri Lanka, be it in Hambantota or in the ongoing Colombo Port City project. Sri Lanka also has a relatively strong army and navy, the likes of which Maldives cannot boast of in the foreseeable future. The nation lacks resources for the purpose, starting with human resources, given the small size of the population in relation to the vastness of the seas surrounding it.

Anti-India protest

For an Indian EAM, Sushma may be the only one to have visited Male on more occasions than most. That includes a stop-over at Male Airport once when Yameen was the President and confabulating with then counterpart, Dunya Maumoon, at the airport. This apart, as EAM, Sushma has also received at least three Foreign Ministers during her five years in office, including Dr Mohamed Asim, Dunya Maumoon’s successor under Yameen regime.

This time round, she held talks with counterpart Abdulla Shahid, another Foreign Ministry veteran who later became Parliament Speaker (2008-13), incumbent Speaker Gasim Ibrahim and Home Minister Imran Abdulla. Sushma also called on President Solih and met with his party chief and predecessor, Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed, who continues to be the international face of Maldivian democracy.

Yet, this time round when her visit was announced, a section of the Opposition led by Yameen’s estranged Home Minister Umar Naseer called for an anti-India protest, days before Sushma’s visit. With Yameen in prison, his PPM-PNC combine also associated with the protest-call, demanding the ‘withdrawal of Indian military personnel’ from Male. As is known, Indian Navy/Coast Guard personnel are aiding and training Maldivian military personnel in the use of two helicopters donated by New Delhi.

The helicopters-gift ran into rough weather when the Yameen-India relations came under a strain. However, India continued to retain them on the Maldivian soil despite repeated Yameen Government’s call for taking them part. Post-poll in September last year, successor Solih administration wanted the Indian helicopters and personnel to stay back.

The planned protest did not happen as the Male city authorities withdrew the permission for the venue, which they said was being used for a purpose other than for which it was obtained. Naseer, a failed presidential candidate from 2008 and aspirant for Elections-2024, was, however, prompt in claiming that the ‘protest-cancellation’ showed that the Male Government was taking orders from India.

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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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