The story so far: Over the last three years since Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih was elected to office, an ‘India Out’ [#IndiaOut] campaign has cropped up every now and then within the Indian Ocean island nation, mostly on social media. The campaign is led by government critics who accuse the Solih government of “allowing Indian boots on the ground”, and thereby “compromising the sovereignty” of the island nation. The ruling administration has denied there is any Indian military presence in the country, or a threat to Maldives’s sovereignty. More recently, the campaign has gained momentum with former President Abdulla Yameen leading it , after the Supreme Court on November 30 set him free, overturning his conviction in a case of alleged money-laundering.
- The recent ‘India Out’ campaign in the Maldives is against the opposition to the UTF harbour development deal which is being seen as a way of allowing Indian military presence on native soil.
- Former President Abdullah Yameen has recently joined this campaign. During Mr. Yameen’s term as President, New Delhi-Male relations deteriorated drastically. The former President is perceived as a friend of China.
- The Solih government has rejected the ‘India Out’ campaign and has expressed concern at attempts to spread “misguided and unsubstantiated information to propagate hatred towards India”.
What is it in response to?
The campaign has got louder around key bilateral developments such as the signing of the Uthuru Thila Falhu (UTF) harbour development deal with India in February 2021. New Delhi is helping Male develop the Maldives National Defence Force Coast Guard Harbour. At the time of the signing, Maldivian Defence Minister Mariya Didi said the developed dockyard and harbour would give Maldives the opportunity “to protect our maritime interests on our own thereby enhancing our sovereignty”.
The recent ‘India Out’ campaign has renewed the opposition to the initiative, seeing it as a way of allowing Indian military presence in the island nation. Similar resistance emerged in June, when India announced the opening of a consulate in the southern Addu Atoll.
Why is President Yameen joining the campaign significant?
During former strongman Yameen’s term as President from 2013 to 2018, New Delhi-Male relations deteriorated drastically. Mr. Yameen’s ultimatum then to New Delhi to withdraw two Indian helicopters from the strategically important Laamu and Addu atolls escalated tensions. The former President is widely perceived as a friend of China, and his frequent confrontation with India, on economy and security matters, left bilateral ties rather strained at the end of his tenure.
On the other hand, the Solih administration has opted for an ‘India first’ foreign policy. It makes no secret of its preference for India as its first choice, be it on security partnership, development assistance or COVID response, including vaccines. India, on its part, has committed $1.4 billion towards the Maldives’s “socio-economic development needs”, engaged through high-level visits, and lobbied extensively to help the Maldives clinch Presidency at the United Nations General Assembly.
Mr. Yameen’s defeat in the 2018 polls, and the antagonistic dynamic that continues between New Delhi and him, do not bode well for India’s prospects for developing bipartisan ties in an important country in the neighbourhood. Further, the next presidential election is scheduled in 2023, and Mr. Yameen is trying to make a political comeback, tapping on both the anti-incumbency, and the anti-India sentiments among sections loyal to him.
What is the government’s response?
The government has rejected the ‘India Out’ campaign, and issued at least two statements in recent weeks, expressing concern at attempts to spread “misguided and unsubstantiated information to propagate hatred towards India”. The Solih administration holds a “small group of individuals and a few political personalities” responsible for the campaign.
In its most recent statement issued on December 19, the government said it “reaffirms that the country’s long-standing ties with all its international partners are based on principles of mutual respect and understanding, and in accordance with respective national and international law. Such interactions in the international sphere does not, and will not undermine the Maldives’ independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. In fact, they are designed to enhance the Maldives’ national interests, and deliver for the people of the Maldives”.
What are the challenges ahead for the incumbent Solih administration?
Although the government has repeatedly attributed the ‘India out’ campaign to small, politically motivated sections, the pressure to defend its India ties appears to be growing. This, along with the mounting challenges of incumbency, that too amid the persisting impact of the pandemic, cannot be easy.
Further, the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party has been witnessing frequent tensions within, with Speaker and former President Mohamed Nasheed — who has expressed interest to run for Presidency in the next election, accusing President Solih of going soft on religious extremists and corrupt politicians. How these factors might impact India’s future engagement in the Indian Ocean archipelago might unravel in the coming year.