Friendly neighbourhood: On India-Maldives bilateral relations

India must strengthen ties with Maldives without taking sides in domestic politics 

December 30, 2022 12:10 am | Updated 11:54 am IST

The conviction of former Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen by a criminal court in the Maldives just a year ahead of general elections could affect his plans to lead the PPM-PNC opposition alliance. He faces 11 years in prison and a $5 million fine after being found guilty of corruption and money laundering links to a company he was accused of taking kickbacks from, during his tenure as President (2013-2018). The Maldives Constitution disqualifies any candidate convicted of criminal charges and sentenced to a term of more than a year unless they are later acquitted or a three-year period has elapsed since their release. In a sense, history has now come full circle for Mr. Yameen, as he had pursued cases against his predecessor Mohamed Nasheed and ensured that he would step down in favour of his party colleague Ibu Solih ahead of the last election. The conviction was his second in three cases. Mr. Yameen has had a rough relationship with India during his presidential term after he declared an emergency in the island state. As opposition leader he has spearheaded the “India Out” campaign, and has been unrepentant despite the latest verdict, trying to link his incarceration to pressure from India.

Given the inimical relationship, as well as Mr. Yameen’s past close links with China, there may be some relief in South Block over the possibility of Mr. Yameen’s disqualification. However, the Government needs to tread carefully when it comes to the domestic politics roiling its close maritime neighbour. India’s infrastructure aid, credit lines, loans and commissioning of various projects (Greater Male Connectivity Project, Hanimaadhoo airport, Hulhumale cricket stadium, Gulhifalhu port) have meant high visibility. In addition, close ties and high-level military exchanges since 2018 have raised speculation that India is eyeing a base. Even as the Solih government has been prompt in countering Mr. Yameen’s allegations, condemning the “India Out” campaign, and arresting a senior opposition leader for threatening violence against the Indian High Commission, the protests have gained some traction in parts of the country. While Mr. Yameen may not be allowed to run in the next election, this might make space for even more radical elements in the opposition combine. New Delhi must keep a close watch on other parts of Maldivian politics, including the rift between India’s closest friends there, President Solih and former President Nasheed, who is threatening to split the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party. Despite having obvious favourites in the polity, New Delhi must actively project the image of the friendly and helpful neighbour without explicitly seeking to sway next year’s election in any direction.

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