By Girish Linganna
Home to around 520,000 people and famous for its sun-kissed atolls, the Maldives is said to be dizzyingly beautiful with underwater marine life that has complex kingdoms of corals scattered across its thousand-odd isles. The tourism website of this archipelagic country in South Asia proudly announces: ‘Swim with Whale Sharks During Your Local Island Stay…’ And swimming with sharks is what India seems to be doing at the moment.
Both Asian giants, China and India, have sunk in millions of dollars in building infrastructure in this archipelago as they seek to spread their sphere of influence in the Indian Ocean region. And the weekend presidential election in the Maldives (on September 9) could be a decisive factor in determining who wins the race for superiority in this far-flung region.
Around 280,000 eligible voters will exercise their franchise over the weekend in this island nation. The winner will be the candidate who secures more than 50 per cent of the votes. If no candidate can reach the halfway mark, a second round of polling between the top two contenders will be held within 21 days.
Incumbent president Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who professes close ties with the country’s ‘Big Brother’ with an ‘India-first’ policy, seems to have a slight edge in the hustings. The results of the poll will have marked implications for Maldives’ foreign policy. But the competition is intense with seven other challengers lined up for the top post. President Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) stormed to power after defeating then-incumbent president Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) in the September 2018 poll.
Yameen, Maldives’ second president to be democratically elected, won the 2013 presidential election by defeating then-incumbent president Mohamed Nasheed and leader of the MDP. But, with his tenure as president marred by several controversies, such as putting key Opposition figures and Supreme Court judges behind bars, gagging the media that hurled corruption allegations and a Parliament lockdown after a no-trust vote, Yameen, in 2019, was slapped with a five-year prison term following corruption and money-laundering charges. He was released in November 2021 after a top court overturned the verdict. As recently as on August 6, in a significant development, the Maldives Supreme Court announced that Yameen would be barred from contesting the presidential election this time around.
In contrast to Solih’s ‘India-first’ policy, his main rival, Mohamed Muizzu of the People’s National Congress (PNC) has a record of being China-friendly and is known for scripting an ‘India-out’ campaign. India had begun the process of bringing the island nation within the ambit of India’s security grid as early as in 2009, when the moderate Islamic nation knocked on New Delhi’s doors fearing a takeover of one of its island resorts by terrorists since it lacked ample military strength and surveillance capabilities. The Southern Naval Command is tasked to oversee the Maldives’ inclusion into the Indian security grid.
During his tenure, Yameen, backed by his considerable number of supporters, tried to fan anti-India sentiments, which only became more pronounced once he had left office. The bones of contention: The presence of two Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopters (ALF) that India gave Maldives in 2010 and in 2015, used for maritime weather surveillance, ocean search-and-rescue operations and for airlifting patients to and from the islands. A more-pervasive complaint by the Opposition party, the PPM, that bilateral agreements had been signed between India and the Maldives during Solih’s rule, which, ostensibly, “lacked transparency”.
The coalition that backs Muizzu says that India’s overarching influence over the island nation’s security apparatus poses a threat to its sovereignty and that India has sinister designs of setting up a permanent military presence in the archipelago. India is helping the Maldives military to build a naval harbour and has offered it training by the Indian armed forces.
India has also signed an agreement with the Maldives, which includes the following: A permanent Indian base of two helicopters in the country to enhance its surveillance capabilities. Setting up of radars on all 26 atolls to scan for approaching vessels and aircraft. The Maldives has only two coastal radars of its own. The Maldives’ coastal radar chain to be networked with Indian coastal radar system so that a central control room in India’s Coastal Command is able to get a seamless radar picture. Regular Dornier sorties by the Indian Coast Guard to check out for suspicious vessels or movements. Maldives military teams to visit the tri-Services’ Andaman Nicobar Command to study India’s surveillance and security of the critical island chain. Annual joint military exercise, Ekuverin, held every year since 2009 between India and Maldives.
The 2018 Maldivian election was widely seen as a thumbs-up for India and a thumbs-down for China. Yameen had faced accusations of cosying up to China after numerous maritime and free trade agreements were signed. After 2012, Chinese investment in the Maldives had surged with many mega-projects, running up huge Chinese debts. India’s historically friendly relationship with the Maldives spanning more than six decades, was, naturally, strained and geopolitical commentators went so far as to say that Yameen was literally “handing over the Maldives to China”.
China, over the recent years, has invested considerably in Maldives’ infrastructure projects, cementing its ties in line with its ‘Belt and Road’ vision for transport and energy networks. China’s platter of offerings for the Maldives should be seen through the lens of support for the latter’s development aspirations. China’s maritime expansionism in the Indian Ocean region is still looking to renew ties with the Maldives depending on the kind of development cooperation it needs.
Concerns abound that the Maldives will abandon its previously India-friendly stance in the event of a negative poll outcome for Solih, and especially so if the Yameen-led PPM were to win. This last scenario could result in significant turnaround in the island nation’s relationships with India and China—and Indo-Pacific partnerships in the larger context. (IPA Service)
(The author is a Defence, Aerospace & Political analyst based in Bengaluru)