Editor : Satish Ohri    Edition : Jan - Feb 2019

Maldives Provides Some Relief to India

Surrounded in the neighbourhood by a hostile Pakistan in the west, unfriendly China in the east, and finicky friends, Nepal and Sri Lanka, in the north and south, at last some relief has come to India from the Maldives—a little distance from the southern coast. But past experience should suggest that the change in regime in the island nation ought to be welcomed with some caution when the neighbourhood in the four corners around the country largely remains antagonistic. The principal reason why the Presidential poll in the Maldives has been greeted in New Delhi is that it overthrew anti-India, pro-China and dictatorial Abdulla Yameen and brought India-friendly Mohamed Solih to power. It has been over-optimistically seen in India as the end of the ‘pro-China’ era in the ‘honeymoon’ nation of 1200 islands of which only 200 are inhabited, and the resumption of a ‘pro-India’ administration. Interestingly, the Maldives elected a ‘pro-India’ president when another ‘pro-India’ leader in the region, Mathripala Sirisena of Sri Lanka, appeared to turn his back on India. He dismissed his prime minister, Ranil Wickremsinghe, and appointed Mahinda Rajapakse whom he had defeated in the polls and who prefers China over India. India had heartily welcomed the election of Sirisene in in January 2005. He had replaced Rajapakse who took his country away from India. His pro-China activities like opening a port for the Chinese Navy had worried India. He invited heavy Chinese investments and loans which placed an unbearable burden on the exchequer and the port had to be handed over to China on long lease. How long the current phase of turmoil will last in Sri Lanka cannot be said at this juncture. But it may not be wrong to assume that India-Sri Lanka ties may not be as strong and friendly as they were before the ‘coup’ in October staged by Srisene. The new president of the Maldives may review the ties with China because it has adversely affected the country’s economy with unbearable debts, but he will certainly not be severing relations with China and cast off Chinese influence altogether. China wins friends among poorer nations with its deep pockets which is a big attraction. Unfortunately, China also generates suspicion with its ‘debt trap’ policy. There have been some instances of late when the nations receiving Chinese ‘munificence’—in the form of generous loans for infrastructure projects—have had second thoughts on relying too much on Beijing for the development of their country. Malaysia after Mahatir bin Mohammed displaced Najib Razak as prime minister stands out as a glaring example of a beneficiary nation extricating itself out of Chinese debt trap. It is understandable that the new president of the Maldives has hinted that he would want to get rid of the undue Chinese debt burden. But it surely does not mean that he will refuse all Chinese aid or loan. The Chinese have not reacted with anger at the change in regime in the Maldives, thus keeping the lines open to continued association in the development projects in the island nation. The Maldives earns handsomely from tourism, but it requires plenty of hard cash to improve the infrastructure required in a nation of 1200 islands. One of the Chinese projects which must have earned some goodwill in the country has beenconstructing a bridge that links the capital with the airport separated by sea. Better connectivity is presumably one of the more urgent needs of the country which require mega bucks and modern technology.

The vast distances between the islands in the Maldives demand better communication and surveillance facilities—a ‘sensitive’ area. The Chinese are too happy to meet these two demands because it also helps them keep an eye on the sea traffic in a strategically important area. The outgoing president, Yamin, had all but thrown out the radar facilities set up by India in one of the islands. He had also dishonoured a private Indian contract for redoing the Male airport. He, in fact, wanted most Indians out of his country. It was only the fear of tough Indian response—maybe in some form of military action—that prevented him from emptying the island of Indians. The new president is expected to do be more amenable to Indian activities, but even he might face opposition if an impression is built that India is being given some ‘military’ facilities. Solih may sound very friendly towards India, but over the past few years—from the time of the first president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled as a virtual dictator for 30 years, from 1978 to 2008—there has been a growth of radical elements. During the Yameen years, Pakistan made deep inroads into the island nation, bringing with it not much of material help but plenty of radicalism. Many Maldivians are believed to have spent time in Pakistani seminaries and ‘institutions’ where the emphasis is on teaching radicalism. The government to government contacts between the Maldives and Pakistan also increased during the Yameen years. It included military contacts. The Maldivian government cannot be expected to turn its back on all but Indians. The country may stay out of establishing closer military ties with China to avoid playing host to India-China rivalry but by the same rule may be applied to India. Any hint of an Indian naval base will invite opposition in the Maldives. For all the ‘pro-India’ statements by Solih, the new president, and the known pro-India proclivities of the former president Mohammed Nasheed, perhaps the most influential politician in the Maldives currently, the strength of the elements opposed to India cannot be underestimated. The Chinese had started making inroads into the Maldives when Nasheed was the president. Before him, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who as president ruled with an iron fist from 1978 to 2008, had done little to stop the spread of radicalism, the elements identified as anti-Indian. It also needs to be remembered that the Maldives is yet to elect a new parliament; elections have been held only for the presidential post. It remains to be seen whether the new parliament is dominated by ‘pro-Indian’ members or those who remain loyal to the previous president.

-BAZH Special

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