Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | Muizzu’s win | How will it impact India-Maldives relations?

 Muizzu’s win | How will it impact India-Maldives relations?

In this episode of Worldview, we discuss the Maldives election results and what is expected in the next few months in ties with the Indian Ocean neighbour

Updated - October 06, 2023 09:38 pm IST

Published - October 06, 2023 09:17 pm IST

Maldives’ new President-Elect says he wants to end the presence of Indian troops in the islands- is the election upset for New Delhi, and what is expected in the next few months in ties with the Indian Ocean neighbour?  

. Up ahead we will tell you about the history of ties, and India’s role in the Indian Ocean Region. 

We will also speak to one of the Maldives most prominent Presidents Mohamed Nasheed, who is always outspoken. 

1.     But first, Results of last week’s Presidential run off, or second round of elections came in in favour of the challenger candidate Dr. Mohamed Muizzu, who represented the PNC-PPM coalition, and defeated President Ibu Solih of the MDP with a convincing 8% lead. 

2.     Of the total 2.4 lakh valid votes counted, Muizzu won nearly 1.3 or 54% of the vote, to Solih’s 1.1, atleast 8 percentage points behind him.

3.     Dr. Muizzu, formerly the Mayor of Capital city Male is an engineer by training, a PhD and was the housing minister in the former government headed by President Abdulla Yameen 

4.     Remember, the first round that was held in early September had seen a smaller vote difference, and a third candidate, Ilyas Labeeb of The Democrats party led by Nasheed, who had broken from the MDP, had won about 7% of the vote, and that could have meant a different outcome if the ruling party had remained united 

5.     The opposition PPM, led by Yameen who is now in jail had started an “India out” campaign- calling for the removal of Indian military projects and other initiatives in the Maldives archipelago. While Muizzu wasn’t as overtly anti-India, he made “Sovereignty” a major plank 

6.     Yameen’s government had been seen as pro-China, had in 2017 signed an FTA with China which had upset many  in India 

7.     In contrast, Solih’s government had been seen as pro-India, as President Solih openly projected an “India First Policy”, signed many agreements with India including a major UTP- Uthuru Thilafalhu Coastguard harbour project that was seen as a cover for more permanent Indian military presence in the Maldives 

8.     As a result, the election was seen as a tussle between India First vs India out  campaigns, and as an extension an India vs China election 

Speaking at a rally after his victory, President-elect Muizzu confirmed what many in Delhi had feared, that he would ask Indian military troops stationed in southern atolls Laamu and Addu to leave. 

A day later, he met with the Indian Ambassador to Male, who handed over a letter of congratulations from PM Modi. 

When asked about Muizzu’s declaration about the Indian personnel moving out, here’s what the MEA spokesperson said: 

The focus of our partnership with Maldives has always been on capacity building and working together to address our shared challenges and priorities, you know, including security challenges and priorities. As neighbours, we need to collaborate closely to address these challenges confronting our region, such as transnational crimes as well as HADR, Humanitarian Assistance Disaster Relief situations. We look forward to engaging with the new administration in Maldives on all these issues. 

A quick word on India’s history with the Maldives 

1. Since its independence from the British in 1965, India has held very close ties with the islands, situated about 800 kilometres from Kochi. 

2. In 1978, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom took charge, and made many visits to India, strengthened ties. 

3. In 1988, India sent its troops and ships to help Gayoom overthrow a coup attempt by a Maldives businessman and Sri Lankan Tamil fighters 

4. In 2008, after a sustained campaign for human rights and democracy, Mohamed Nasheed was elected President, he had been imprisoned and tortured for years in the 1990s, and founded the Maldivian Democratic Party. During his tenure, India began closer security cooperation, gifting or loaning 2 helicopters, and dornier aircraft to the Maldives along with patrol boats, for maritime reconnaissance, surveillance and coast guard security ops 

5. In 2012, Nasheed stepped down, after an uprising in his security forces over his decision to act against a judge. Many forget the problems with the judge had begun over India- during the SAARC summit there in 2009, statues gifted by India were defaced by a group of political islamist activists, but a judge gave them bail, which put him on collision course with Nasheed 

6. . In 2013, Abdulla Yameen of the opposition PPM was elected to power- Yameen sent Nasheed to prison in 2015 after he was convicted on terror charges. The charges were later dropped, but Nasheed was disqualified from running in the next elections. India had objected to Yameen’s actions including an emergency he imposed, and called for democracy in the islands, which led to a major strain in ties. That’s when Yameen signed the FTA with China, invited Chinese companies in for a number of major investments including the Hullumale island housing projects and friendship bridge, and threatened to evict Indian pilots and personnel from the islands. 

7. In 2018, India was visibly relieved when Yameen lost, and Nasheed’s long term friend Ibu Solih won the election, at the time seen as a proxy for Nasheed. Solih proved even friendlier than Nasheed, and India was invited to start many infrastructure projects including the $500mn Greater Male connectivity project funded by grants and concessionary loans from India. In 2021 they signed the Uthuru Thilafalhu project for which construction began this year, for India to build and maintain a coastguard harbour base- this sparked the India Out campaign 

So will the pendulum now swing back against India? With me is former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed 

With Muizzu’s win and his comments, will the pendulum now swing back against India?

 I have a feeling and the view that the international media has characterized our election, as between India and China, and also has characterized Dr. Muizzu as Pro China. I don’t think all this was exactly true, or that kind of irrelevant during the elections. Yes. There was always questions about that. There was always questions about foreign involvement in the Maldives, and how we would conduct a foreign policy and so on. But these issues were not the main election issues. Dr. Muizzu especially when they went towards the election period, the India campaign against Indian military presence here, or so called Indian military presence here. It has subsided, and that really wasn’t the main campaign point. Now, your question of what I would like to know is do I My feeling is that he will continue with our foreign policy, he will continue with his engagement with the Maldives engagement with the international community. And it My understanding is that he would know that India is our neighbour, our longest, our relations, the relations that we have with India, go back many, many, many hundreds of years. And I can’t see much changing because there was a change in government. One of the things that I tried to do during the last five years is to see that the Maldives is not so polarized, that every election is not a swing, so that we have a more stable, sustainable policies, be that foreign or home. So I don’t think that viewing the election, as a loss to India is actually correct.

Could you have tipped the election the other way

No, no, no, I have been telling everyone, as as long as 2020 that President solid will not be able to win a second candidate. Second term. You know, incumbency problems are huge in the mountains, especially that in 2008 was the first time we had multiparty elections. And why we we amended the Constitution and came into this new multiparty democracy was because we did not want people in government for long, long periods of time. You will remember the president the US had been in government for 30 years. And that is primarily why we came up with a new constitution. So I tend to view to think to assume that a candidate a president can get a second time in the Maldives in the near future would be wrong. That would be wishful thinking. strategies based on wishful thinking do not lead us to very promising outcomes.

Specifically, given what Pres Elect Muizzu says is the people’s sentiments against foreign troops, what is the future of Indian troops in the Maldives archipelago?

Let’s talk about this boatyard the naval facility. Now, I have documents because I have been a president. I’ve seen documents that goes as far back as president guide you on the utility the first facility, right, we have these Coast Guard boats. And we have to maintain the faith. And we every time we are taking them to Colombo for docking, and maintenance. And this has been going on for the last 25 years. And every time we have to do this, everyone agrees that we have to emphasize and everyone agrees that we have to talk to India and we have to join up with India and then establish them. So finally during my presidency, as the defense minister signed the framework agreement, and then very fortunate, we came into government and the defense minister in President Solih’s government was able to finally sign the agreement. I can’t see why Dr Muizzu would want to do anything, basically. But it’s very clear. There’s nothing wrong with it. There’s nothing absolutely wrong. The only the only problem was that we want to make it a secret. I cannot understand why people do that. I begged everyone. Look, we have a huge majority in the parliament. And this is just a normal piece of agreement. It benefits both countries. It benefits the Maldives hugely. We could have brought it to the parliament and I am sure MPs would have seen what it is what it what it is. But no, we thought the best would be to make it a secret and confident and we didn’t know anything about. It would have made a big difference. We could have gone out and patted for it. And there would have been many who would do that. In a house how sensitive of a security In safety is I mean, people know that a terrorist organization from anywhere, a few 100 People can come and really disturb the motives. There’s nothing better than having closer defense cooperation between them.

In 2018, PM Modi attended the swearing in of Ibu Solih- what will happen this time on November 17? 

But first, just last night, the transition office told me that they would very much like to invite the Indian prime minister to the new president’s inauguration. So it’s trying to get to the eighth day, but I will go to the parliament in the afternoon and send it to the dear planets. And I hope that the Prime Minister would visit the motives will go on the India will go on and other relationships will continue. And when I joined the government, there is an understanding that the Democrats will have some involvement didn’t have any involvement in the government. So they will have stakes in the government. And I believe there will be someone from them in the cabinet as well. So hopefully, we will stabilize the moment it’s this will not hopefully be a polarized country. And people who continue to enjoy the freedoms that they have.

Remember the Maldives is a key element in India’s IOR strategy that includes working on :

-Placing naval and airforce personnel 

-Human assistance and Disaster relief ops, 

-Countering surveillance and military operations by China 

-Keeping IOR sea lanes secure and open from threats like piracy 

-Working with Indo Pacific partners including US, Japan, Australia, France, UK, EU 

India has a presence in 

-Maldives- personnel in Addu and Laamu, coastguard harbour base project 

-Sri Lanka patrol boats 

-Ports where Indian Navy can dock in Reunion, Madagascar, Oman, UAE 

-Chabahar port in Iran 

-Reports of an Indian base in the Seychelles- Assumption island 

-Naval facility in Mauritius Agalega islands- even the NSA Is an Indian 

-String of Radar and maritime communication facilities in Syechelles, Mauritius and Madagascar, Comoros 

-A number of dialogues including the IORA, ION, India-SL-Maldives trilateral 

WV Take:

When it comes to the domestic policy of India’s closest neighbours, given both geography and history, it is a mistake to play favourites. While the electoral win of Dr. Muizzu may not have been the desired outcome for the Modi government, it is necessary to see that being too close to the Solih government may have had a role in the pushback against him. India must not deal with its neighbours while nervously looking over its shoulder for China, more confidence in traditional ties, and the avoidance of a zero-sum mindset is necessary to build its strategic future in the IOR. 

WV Reading Recommendations: 

1.     Descent into Paradise: A Journalist’s Memoir of the Untold Maldives by Daniel Bosley 

2.     Great Game East: India, China and the Struggle for Asia’s Most Volatile by Bertil Lintner 

3.     Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power by Robert D. Kaplan 

4.     The Maldives: Islamic Republic, Tropical Autocracy by John J. Robinson 

 5.     China in the Indian Ocean Region—India’s Security Challenges by Sidda Goud 

6.     Comprehensive Maritime Security in The Indian Ocean Region: Challenges and Opportunities by Sithara Fernando 

7.     Mapping the Indian Ocean Region by Darshana Baruah

Script and Presentation: Suhasini Haidar

Production: Gayatri Menon and Reenu Cyriac

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