External Affairs

Maldives Leader to Visit as Delhi Mends Fences with Indian Ocean Neighbour

The Maldivian opposition is unhappy but New Delhi’s desire for rapprochement is driven by China-linked strategic concerns

Maldives president Abdulla Yameen. Credit: Maldives President's office

Maldives president Abdulla Yameen. Credit: Maldives President’s office

New Delhi: Indicating a major reset in bilateral relations is on the cards, President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom of the Maldives will come here next week for high-level meetings with the Indian leadership.

Announcing the two-day visit on Friday, the Indian external affairs ministry said that Yameen will have a meeting and working lunch with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on April 11.  He would also call on President Pranab Mukherjee the same evening.

The last time that Yameen had been in Delhi was for Modi’s swearing-in ceremony in May 2014. As per diplomatic protocol, the next high-level bilateral visit would have been by Modi – but the prime minister skipped the Maldives during his Indian Ocean tour of 2014.

At that time, the streets of Malé were witnessing daily protests by the opposition parties over the arrest of former president Mohammed Nasheed on terrorism charges. Security concerns, as well as the desire to avoid the embarrassment of an Indian PM visiting a country while the main opposition leader was behind bars, had led to the cancellation.

After the official announcement of Yameen’s visit on Friday, the principal Maldivian political opposition group, the Maldivian Democratic Party, said it hoped India would take the opportunity to reprimand Yameen.

Opposition aghast

“We will be shocked if this was an ‘invitation’ as against a ‘summons’,” MDP’s international spokesperson, Hamid Abdul Ghafoor told The Wire after the announcement of the presidential visit.

“We have maintained that appeasing a dictator does not make sense. We would imagine it is time for India to bare some teeth. We believe that Prime Minister Modi will clarify to President Yameen that what’s happening in the Maldives is unacceptable and if the government of Maldives fails to act appropriately then Indian displeasure will be visible,” he said.

Just a few hours after the Maldives and India simultaneously announced the visit, the Maldives Correctional Services rejected the appeal for extension of Nasheed’s medical leave and ordered him to return from abroad.

Yameen’s visit will take place after the Maldives was back in the news for the arrest of 16 journalists during a rally to protest the proposed defamation law.

The visit comes ahead of the next meeting of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), which is due to review this month progress on a list of demands – including talks with opposition and the release of opposition politicians. The government had invited opposition leaders for talks, but there was no progress after the latter demanded the release of all political prisoners as a pre-condition.

While President Yameen is currently on an official trip to Malaysia, a CMAG member, other Maldivian ministers have been sent on similar missions to Pakistan, Solomon Islands and the UK.

“I don’t think India is doing the right thing. Just because Nasheed is out of jail doesn’t mean the ground reality has changed. The press and democratic opposition continue to be stifled,” said Maldivian political analyst, Yameen Rasheed. “It was the threat of isolation and sanctions that led the GoM to act in the past – e.g. allowing Nasheed to fly abroad – not engagement.”

Yameen reached out to India – and Pakistan – for support in thwarting the move to put Maldives on the formal agenda of the CMAG in February. Indian foreign secretary S. Jaishankar had been part of a three-member CMAG mission that travelled to the country and met the principal actors.

Rasheed, who is a well-known commentator, felt that India’s “past attempt to humour” the Maldives government following the 2012 ‘coup’ which led to Nasheed ‘stepping down’ was “disastrous” for the South Asian giant. “It should not expect any different results this time,” he said.

Down and downhill

India was the first country to recognise the new government which took charge that year under Mohammed Waheed. Eventually, New Delhi learned that Waheed may not have been the right choice.

Worried at the Waheed government’s effort to manipulate the polls through the judiciary, India worked with the international community to ensure Nasheed was allowed to take part in the 2013 presidential elections.

File photo of former Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed. Credit: REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

File photo of former Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed. Credit: REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

After Yameen won the final round, his first foreign port of call was India. But relations soured over the unilateral cancellation of the Hyderabad-based GMR group’s contract to build the Ibrahim Nasir international airport at Malé.

The last time New Delhi had been mildly disapproving of the Maldives government in public was in the first half of 2015.

After Nasheed’s public “manhandling” at this first court appearance in February 2015, India had expressed concern – in line with similar statements by the US, UK and other western countries.

India’s unhappiness was also reflected in the statement at the meeting of the Maldives’ Universal Periodic Review working group at the UN Human Rights Council in May last year. “We have seen reports by UN agencies that press freedom is being abridged.  The special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers has also reported their increased politicisation.  Maintaining public trust requires strong adherence to due process. The space for legitimate political dissent must be safeguarded,” said India, striking an unusually critical tone.

However, the sharpest dip in India-Maldives relations was in July, when the Yameen government quickly pushed through a constitutional amendment which allowed ownership of land by foreign nationals.

New Delhi was alarmed that this move could open the door for China to set up a base in the Maldives. After Chinese President Xi Jinping visited there in 2014, the Indian ocean island nation was subsumed into the maritime silk road project under the ‘One Belt, One road’ proposals. Therefore, the constitutional amendment, passed with unseemly haste, had raised eyebrows in South Block.

After the Indian foreign secretary summoned the Maldivian ambassador, the Maldives foreign secretary Ali Naseer Mohamed rushed to Delhi with a personal letter from Yameen for Modi. In that letter, Yameen undertook not to allow militarisation of the Indian Ocean.

China-centric circumspection

But, the lingering fear about China’s spread in the Indian Ocean seemed to have weighed in favour of New Delhi mending its bridges with the Yameen administration.

There is also a strongly-held view in the Prime Minister’s Office that Malé is important for India’s counter-terrorism strategy – with Maldivians accounting for the largest group from South Asia fighting in Syria, on a per capita basis.

Rasheed felt that the best way to counter Chinese influence in the Maldives is not to try and outdo China. “Unless India too is willing to spend billions, this strategy is doomed to failure. Its best chance at winning the Indian ocean is to help restore democracy in this country,” he said.

India’s perfunctory statement at the adoption of the report of working group on Maldives UPR in September – in contrast to its views four months earlier – was a reflection of the new thinking in South Block.

Jaishankar has probably visited Maldives more than any other country in the region. In October 2015, Swaraj also travelled there Maldives for the meeting of the joint Commission, held after a gap of 15 years.

Credit: Google Maps

Credit: Google Maps

In January, Sri Lanka brokered the deal for Nasheed to leave Maldives on a medical leave. While India expressed happiness about Nasheed getting permission to travel to the UK, there were no more public statements about the domestic situation in Maldives, where the opposition is continuing to hold protests

Nasheed reached London and demanded targeted international sanctions against Maldivian officials for undermining democracy. He had hoped that India would put pressure too – but there was public silence from New Delhi.

Speaking to The Wire, the Observer Research Foundation’s N. Sathiya Moorthy said the  forthcoming presidential visit was a “clear indication that India has patched up almost all differences and tensions at the government-level, and maybe on the China-linked strategic security and IS-linked terrorism concerns.”

With Maldives being the only South Asian country not visited by Modi in the last 20 months, Yameen’s trip could be a precursor for an Indian VVIP tour later this year.

“Sure enough, Yameen can be expected to invite Modi to visit the Maldives, early on. It should not be surprising if Modi makes an early trip there, and also uses the occasion to try build bridges between the domestic adversaries – without being seen as doing so,” N Sathiya Moorthy said.