By Girish Linganna
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was among the first world leaders to congratulate president-elect of the Maldives, Mohamed Muizzu, 45, of the People’s National Congress (PNC), on Sunday in a post on social media platform X, saying that New Delhi was unflinching in its determination to strengthen the India-Maldives bilateral relationship which had stood the test of time.
But, in a twist to India-Maldives bilateral relations, the new leader of the small, South Asian archipelagic state that holds a strategic position in the Indian Ocean, at his first public rally after winning Saturday’s runoff election, vowed to “end the foreign military presence” in his country. Coincidentally, India is the only foreign power that deploys a military in the archipelago.
“We’ll be repatriating the military forces based in the Maldives according to law,” Muizzu declared at the rally held in capital Malé on Monday night. “The people who brought… military forces don’t want to send them back, but the people of the Maldives have decided,” he stressed.
The initial round of presidential elections in the Maldives was held on September 9, 2023, when around 280,000 eligible voters exercised their franchise in this island nation in which the candidate who secured more than 50 per cent of the votes would be the winner. Muizzu emerged as the surprise frontrunner during the first round of voting, garnering about 46 per cent of the votes cast.
Incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who professes close ties with the country’s ‘Big Brother’ with his ‘India-first’ policy, was not so lucky, as the voter turnout was low coupled with a split within his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and managed to win only 39 per cent. Since no candidate could reach the halfway mark, a second round of polling between the top two contenders was held on September 30.
Solih was looking to be re-elected after he defeated Mohamed Nasheed, Speaker of the People’s Majlis, in the Maldivian Democratic Party primaries. Solih conceded defeat shortly before midnight after PNC candidate and Malé mayor Mohamed Muizzu won the election with 54% of the votes, becoming president-elect of the Maldives.
Outgoing President Solih had realigned the nation’s relations with long-time benefactor India, after his predecessor, Abdulla Yameen, moved the country into Beijing’s orbit, with heavy borrowings from China to fund its infrastructure projects. President Solih and his MDP had seized the reins of this archipelagic nation after delivering a crushing defeat in the September 2018 poll on then-incumbent president Abdulla Yameen of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM).
Yameen, Maldives’ second democratically elected President, had won the presidential election in 2013 by defeating leader of the MDP, the then-incumbent president Mohamed Nasheed. But his tenure was marred by several controversies, such as throwing key Opposition figures and Supreme Court judges behind bars, gagging the media that highlighted corruption allegations and a Parliament lockdown after a no-trust vote.
Yameen, in 2019, was thrown into prison for a five-year term because of the numerous allegations of money-laundering and corruption against him. In a significant turn of events on August 6 this year, a Supreme Court verdict barred Yameen from running for the presidential election this time around.
In contrast to Solih’s ‘India-first’ policy, his main rival, Mohamed Muizzu has a record of being China-friendly and is known for scripting an ‘India-out’ campaign. As early as in 2009, India had started the process of bringing the Maldives within its security fold, when the moderate Islamic nation needed the security of military and surveillance wherewithal to help avert a terrorist takeover of one of its island resorts. India’s Southern Naval Command is in charge of overseeing the Maldives’ induction into the Indian security grid.
During his term in office, Yameen had fanned considerable anti-India sentiments, the embers of which glowed more fiercely once he left office. The bones of contention: Two Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopters that India gave Maldives in 2010 and in 2015, for the purpose of for airlifting patients to and from the islands, ocean search-and-rescue operations and maritime weather surveillance. The Opposition party, the PPM’s charges that India and the Maldives had signed bilateral agreements during Solih’s rule, which, allegedly, “lacked transparency”.
The coalition that backs Muizzu, who acts as a proxy to Yameen, says that India’s overarching influence over the island nation’s security apparatus poses a threat to its sovereignty and that India has dark designs of establishing a permanent military base in the island nation. India, with its offer of training by its armed forces, is helping the Maldives military to build a harbour for its navy.
Close on the heels of his victory, Muizzu was instrumental in freeing Yameen, who was serving an 11-year prison term at the high-security Maafushi jail, and managed his transfer to house arrest in Malé. He also rejected media claims that he is a “pro-China leader” and preferred the term, “pro-Maldives”.
China has congratulated Muizzu, saying it “respects the choice of the Maldivian people”. China’s foreign ministry said in a statement that it was keen to collaborate with the Maldives in strengthening their “traditional friendship” and “mutually beneficial cooperation”.
In 2018, the Maldivian election was perceived by one and all as a ‘green light’ for advancing its equations with India and cooling off of ties with China. Numerous maritime and free trade agreements signed between China and the Maldives had led to Yameencosying up to China. Since 2012, there was a spew of Chinese investments in the Maldives as many mega-projects were signed, which led to huge Chinese debts piling up. India’s traditionally cordial relations with the Maldives of over six decades, were, naturally, strained as political observers perceived Yameen literally “handing over the Maldives to China”.
China, over the recent years, has cemented its ties in line with its ‘Belt and Road’ vision for transport and energy networks. China’s bouquet of offerings for the island nation should be seen in the context 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. Muizzu’s recent win could result in significant turnaround in the Maldives’ bilateral ties with India and China, respectively—and Indo-Pacific partnerships in the larger context. (IPA Service)