Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on May 09, 2022 Updated 13 Days ago
Despite mounting domestic concerns, the focus of the electoral campaigns has continued to be on external players such as China and India.
India and China dominate Maldives’ political discourse

As the archipelago nation in the Indian Ocean enters the election mode, the campaign focus is increasingly on ‘external factors’ than domestic concerns which have been mounting in the post-COVID recovery era. The presidential poll is not due before the third half of next year, and we can witness that anti-India/anti-China campaigns have been dominating the political discourse, where there is a lot more to talk about such as the allegations of political corruption on the one hand and unprecedented developmental activities on the other.

Two events reinforced the current mood. The first event was President Ibrahim Mohammed Solih promulgating a decree, banning the Opposition PPM-PNC combine’s ‘India Out’ campaign, which underscored the impossibility of the situation. The second was when Solih’s ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) chief Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed, who is also Parliament Speaker, in the Indian capital of New Delhi, again came down on the Chinese ‘debt-trap’, incurred during the predecessor regime of rival PPM boss Abdulla Yameen (2013-18).

The ban and thereafter

The presidential decree banning ‘India Out’ campaign became necessary after the Yameen camp’s unsubstantiated protests became an embarrassment for the nation. Maldives’ post-COVID recovery especially requires massive external funding and a rapid return of foreign tourists. The main Opposition’s unending campaign against the nation’s closest neighbour and biggest aid-giver was sending out wrong signals to other nations and their tourists about their own future worth to the Maldives.

Maldives’ post-COVID recovery especially requires massive external funding and a rapid return of foreign tourists.

What is more striking is that the Yameen camp took its slogan to the islands across the nation and not to the courts. Instead, the criminal court in Malé has since clarified that its April order banning ‘India Out’ campaign covered variants, such as misspelt syntax and wall graffiti, on which the protestors had fallen back.

However, there is also no clarity as to why the Yameen camp did not move to the Supreme Court, alleging violation of ‘freedom of expression and assembly’, if they were sure of their position. In passing the decree, President Solih clarified that it did not violate the guarantees under the nation’s first multi-party democracy Constitution of 2008.

There is also clarity about penalties for violation of the presidential decree and/or the court orders, and if the ban would cover speeches delivered at political rallies, in the long run-up to the presidential polls. The Yameen camp has not divined an alternative campaign platform and/or slogan, implying that they could go all out on the ‘India Out’ campaign, defying the legal ban, courting arrest, etc. Will then the Election Commission (EC) step in, in a big or small way—and, if so, how and how far?

Simultaneously, the Opposition PPM-PNC members have moved Parliament’s ‘241 National Security Committee’, alleging a threat to his personal security after a youth put out a social media post, threatening Yameen, for his anti-India posturing. Already, the committee is seized by the security threat posed to Speaker Nasheed, whose family, on the anniversary of the 6 May 2021 bomb attack on him, reiterated their demand for identifying the ‘financiers’ behind the Malé blast.

The police, meanwhile, have taken up the case of the threat to Yameen by the youth, identified as Adam Asif—who leads a small group called ‘Maldives Youth Force’.

Joining BRI a mistake?

In New Delhi, where he addressed the annual Raisina Dialogue, Speaker Nasheed, who was also Maldives’ first democratically-elected President (2008–12), met with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar. On a possibly rare occasion, he also became one of the few non-governmental leaders from a foreign country to have a publicised meeting with India’s National Security Advisor (NSA), Ajit Doval, whom he described as the ‘grandmaster of geopolitics’. In a meeting with Lok Sabha Speaker, Om Birla, the two decided to set up an India–Maldives parliamentary friendship group. All these go beyond the big-ticket physical and social infrastructure funded by India, especially since the Solih government came to power.

The Opposition PPM-PNC members have moved Parliament’s ‘241 National Security Committee’, alleging a threat to his personal security after a youth put out a social media post, threatening Yameen, for his anti-India posturing.

As in recent years, Nasheed’s Delhi visit was noted more for his anti-China, anti-Yameen diatribe. He called the ‘India Out’ campaign a ‘fabricated issue’  in multiple media interviews and repeatedly pointed to a large number of Indian doctors, nurses, teachers, and other professionals serving his nation for years. Yameen’s ‘India Out’ campaign was tantamount to ‘hate-crime’ and smacked of racism, he averred.

On China, Nasheed said, the nation has “intentionally inflated the price of developmental projects’ it funded in Third World nations. “It was a mistake that we took part in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI),” under Yameen’s rule, he added.

Nasheed also saw a Chinese hand behind the anti-India campaign. Other MDP leaders like veteran parliamentarian, Ibrahim Shareef, have also been underscoring the point that ‘India’s assistance is crucial for Maldives to protect is independence and territorial integrity’.

Interestingly, even while targeting India without proof or justification, Yameen has been steadfastly silent over China, one way or the other. Possibly this has been the reason that incumbent Chinese envoy has been forced to defend her nation’s ties with Maldives.

In the aftermath of Nasheed’s media interviews in Delhi, China’s Ambassador Wang Lixin in Malé reiterated that the “allegation that ‘China has grabbed the land of Maldives’ is pure slander”. Through all this, Amb Lixin kept the Yameen presidency out of her reckoning. She said that Maldivian non-performance on the (hurried) Yameen era bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA ‘worries Chinese enterprises…(who) doubt if their investment earnings can be protected’ in a reluctant country, she said.

Mounting domestic disputes

Maldives is still an infant democracy, and the MDP is still seen as the mascot. However, the campaign window for the 16 May election of the MDP’s chairman, the administrative head, has added to the party’s woes.

The Solih camp’s victory in the party general council election by a wide margin late last year, followed by securing the Leader of the House position in Parliament earlier this year, a triple victory for the Solih camp could put Nasheed on the defensive.

Economic Development Minister, Fayyaz Ismail, and parliamentarian Imthiaz Fahmy, or Inthi, identifying with Solih and Nasheed respectively, are in the field though neither leader has formally endorsed their candidature yet. The Solih camp’s victory in the party general council election by a wide margin late last year, followed by securing the Leader of the House position in Parliament earlier this year, a triple victory for the Solih camp could put Nasheed on the defensive. The reverse is true if Inthi became party chairman, working closely with Nasheed, who has remained elected party president for years now.

Both MDP camps have been washing their dirty linen in public, embarrassing the party and upsetting the substantial number of non-cadre supporters of the past decade and more. Continuing with his anti-graft refrain, Nasheed has since called for a ‘clean candidate’ to be elected as the party chairman.

The government (read Solih camp) has since retorted to Nasheed’s charges, mostly by explaining how the President had removed those proven to be corrupt. Lately, those identified with the Solih camp have also begun taking the battle to the rival’s court by accusing some of those close to Nasheed as corrupt or non-performing in executing government contracts.

Deputy Speaker Eva Abdulla has reiterated recently that Nasheed would contest the party primaries for presidential nomination. Solih camp’s chairman candidate Fayyaz has claimed that this is not the time to select the presidential candidate. The president has not announced his candidature as yet.

Allies remain undecided

The Solih camp was peeved that ahead of his pre-scheduled India visit, Nasheed had declared that the MDP should quit the coalition government. This was preceded by his prediction that the party could not secure 50-percent vote-share to win the presidential polls.

With competing claimants to the presidential nomination—but only if Yameen is disqualified—the PPM-PNC combine too could anticipate some churning ahead of the presidential polls.

Upset by the constant internal bickering in the MDP, the party’s three allies are awaiting Solih’s decision first, and that of his party on the presidential nominee, before deciding on continuing in the alliance. But individually, all three parties have affirmed their support to the Solih leadership until then.

Therein lies a catch, which could acerbate the general sense of political instability, especially if the criminal court were to imprison rival Yameen in the two money-laundering cases, disqualifying him from contesting the presidential polls. With competing claimants to the presidential nomination—but only if Yameen is disqualified—the PPM-PNC combine too could anticipate some churning ahead of the presidential polls.

Conclusion

In such a scenario, India and China continue to occupy substantial space and time in domestic social and political discourse. The rest is taken up by the Nasheed camp’s constant haranguing of the party government, both inside and outside of the Parliament.

‘Externalising’ domestic politics and poll campaigns, comes with its consequences. Pakistan’s is a case in point. There are experts in Pakistan who say that removing India as the raison d’être for the nation’s existence, say, by resolving the ‘Kashmir issue’, could lead to its collapse under the weight of self-contradictions.

Maldives’ is no comparison case, yes, given its long history of national identity, but that can neither be taken for granted nor challenged from within.

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Contributor

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

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

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