In one of the first statements following his victory in the country’s presidential elections, Maldives’ new president-elect Mohamed Muizzu said, “We will send back foreign soldiers in the Maldives.” While Muizzu did not name any country, his remarks have been interpreted as directed at India.
In the run-up to the elections, Muizzu’s People’s National Congress-Progressive Party of Maldives (PNC-PPM) coalition had heavily focused on India’s influence in the archipelagic nation and had accused New Delhi of establishing “a permanent military presence” in the Maldives.
Following the results, there has been intense focus on what Muizzu’s win means for Maldives-India relations, as well as the country’s foreign policy.
Several issues stick out in the context of India-Maldives ties. The first is the long-standing controversy over the two Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopters (ALF), based in Addu Atoll and Hanimaadhoo, that were given by India to the Maldives in 2010 and in 2015. They have been used for maritime weather surveillance, ocean search-and-rescue operations, and for airlifting patients between islands.
According to the terms of bilateral agreements between the two countries, Indian officers had been sent to the Maldives to train the Maldives National Defence Force, under whose command these helicopters operate.
Observers told indiaexpress.com that while these helicopters were for humanitarian purposes, supporters of the anti-India campaign, particularly the PPM, have claimed that by giving the aircraft, India was attempting to create a military presence in the country.
In 2016, domestic fervour against India’s perceived military presence reached its peak, with the Maldives asking India to take back these helicopters. Supporters of the ‘India Out’ campaign told indianexpress.com that the campaign was rooted in this controversy surrounding the ALF choppers and India’s reported refusal to take them back.
Two years later in 2018, when Ibrahim Mohamed Solih assumed office, he extended the stay and use of the helicopters in the country.
Another recurring complaint by supporters of the ‘India Out’ campaign has been the “lack of transparency” in agreements signed between the Solih government and India, claiming they have not been shared and discussed in the Maldives Parliament citing national security.
Muizzu’s statements saying that his government would remove foreign soldiers should not come as a surprise, said Dr. Gulbin Sultana, a research analyst at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, whose area of research includes the Maldives. “It was one of the main issues in the election campaign so they have to show their voters that they are trying to fulfil their election pledges,” Sultana said.
However, Sultana pointed out that while it is easy to make emotive promises while campaigning as a politician, acting on them as the leader of the nation is much harder. For instance, cancelling bilateral agreements with India would require the Maldives to cough up financial compensation running into millions of dollars, which it may not be in a position to make.
In a report published in 2022, the World Bank had said that although the Maldives was not at immediate risk of a crisis, the country needs to raise revenues and implement several expenditure and debt reforms to avoid an economic crisis in the future.
Observers in India believe that even if the Muizzu goverment reviews agreements signed under Solih, it will be compelled to turn to other allies for assistance to fill the subsequent gap.
Another concern in India has been about Muizzu’s strong pro-China tilt. “The relationship between the Maldives and India is self-standing and should not be contingent upon the leadership of our respective nations or the relationships both our countries maintain with other nations. The relationship we have with India is time immemorial, and the main foundation of the relationship is based on people to people contact that is both civilizational and traditional in nature. Having said that, we must also be mindful of the fact that the noise during the election campaign existed for a reason,” said Ahmed Mohamed, former Ambassador of the Maldives to India.
Analysts agree that the ‘India Out’ campaign would not have found so much resonance had the Solih government done more to address the concerns and complaints within the country.
“Like any other nation, we cherish our sovereignty and do not wish to be subjugated or controlled by another country. The mandate bestowed upon the incoming leadership is crystal clear – it is to protect our sovereignty and ensure we are not subject to external dominance. Whether the fear and concern are exaggerated or unwarranted depends on several factors, including the nature and objectives of the various agreements concluded between our two countries during the past five years and how both countries wish to navigate their diplomatic relationship moving forward,” said Mohamed.
From the perspective of the Maldives, one way to achieve this would be for both countries to “clear and open communication channels” to “address any misunderstandings and ensure that the actual impact on Maldives-India relations is based on concrete actions rather than speculative narratives,” he added.
Experts interviewed in the Maldives and India said that while the ‘India Out’ campaign has claimed it is protesting Indian military presence, the name has been interpreted as singling out and targeting the country. This had a butterfly effect, impacting all aspects of exchanges between the two countries.
The anti-India sentiment didn’t just sprout overnight last year, but is nearly a decade-old and can be traced back to when Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom of the Progressive Party (PPM) became president in 2013.
During Yameen’s rule, India-Maldives relations severely deteriorated. There was a significant amount of anti-India rhetoric during that time because the Maldivian government was pro-China. But at the same time, it had also openly discussed an ‘India-First’ policy for the Maldives.
There are other factors too. Experts interviewed for this report in the Maldives, who requested anonymity citing the sensitivity of the situation, said that since 2018, particularly after the start of the India Out campaign, Indian diplomats stationed in the Maldives have not been able to develop constructive relationships with politicians outside the MDP party, which led to perhaps strained relations and sparse communication with parties like PPM, PNC, etc.
However, Mohamed highlighted that people-to-people connections remain warm. “It is essential to consider that diplomatic engagement is a complex process influenced by a range of factors. The warm reception of ordinary Maldivians towards Indians underscores the significance of people-to-people connections and the potential for positive relations to transcend political discourse,” he said.
Following his win, Miuzzu has toned down his rhetoric towards India, and in his first public speech, when promising to remove foreign soldiers, he said he would act “within the constraints of law”.
“About bilateral agreements under Solih too, he said he will do whatever he can based on what the laws allow. Some clauses in agreements cannot be revealed based on national security, and even he has probably realised that,” said Sultana.
Three days after the election results came in, Muizzu met with the Indian high commissioner Munu Mahawar in a courtesy call, during which a letter of congratulations from Prime Minister Narendra Modi was handed over to the president-elect. The Progressive Party of Maldives tweeted that Muizzu, along with vice president-elect Hussain Mohamed Latheef, had discussions with the Indian high commissioner on “further enhancing bilateral relations between Maldives and India”.
Handed over a congratulatory message from Prime Minister Shri @narendramodi.
Look forward to building on our productive discussions to further enhance India – Maldives relationship. https://t.co/gk2p56f3en
— Amb Munu Mahawar (@AmbMunu) October 4, 2023
“Chinese investment and economic cooperation will increase from what it was during the Solih administration, but as far as India-Maldives relations are concerned, I don’t think it will go back to the Yameen period of 2013-2018. That was the worst period for India-Maldives bilateral relations,” said Sultana.