What the Maldives election landslide means for India

Author:Rezaul H Laskar 2024-04-22 23:50 5

If policymakers in New Delhi were hoping for some good news from the parliamentary election in the Maldives, the actual outcome would only add to the growing concerns within the Indian establishment regarding the situation in the Indian Ocean archipelago.

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Maldives' President Mohamed Muizzu (centre) along with his supporters in Male. (AFP Photo)(HT_PRINT)

The ruling coalition led by Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu pulled off a landslide victory in the election, bagging 70 out of 93 seats in the People’s Majlis or more than a two-thirds majority in the unicameral Parliament. The main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), which dominated the outgoing Majlis and has worked for better ties with India, was able to win just 10 seats. More than 284,000 voters were eligible to participate in the polls, and the final turnout was pegged at more than 75%.

The result will only further embolden Muizzu, who portrayed the election as a referendum on his policies, which include a pronounced tilt towards China while simultaneously ending the Maldives’ long-standing dependence on India in crucial sectors such as food and energy security, and security cooperation. With the MDP no longer in a position to stymie Muizzu’s policy decisions by exercising the option of parliamentary oversight, the Maldivian leader will now be able to pursue his foreign policy with a free hand.

Indian officials had been hoping the MDP would reverse the slide in its political standing, especially since the party’s loss to Muizzu’s People’s National Congress (PNC) party in last year’s presidential election. However, the MDP’s campaign was unable to sway voters, who strongly backed the line taken by the president.

Even before the election, Muizzu — who won the presidential vote on the back of an “India Out” campaign — had taken several steps that he said were aimed at making the Maldives more self-reliant but actually served to end or reduce the archipelago’s dependence on India. Breaking with the tradition of every Maldivian leader making the first foreign visit to India, Muizzu instead travelled to China in January and signed 20 agreements and elevated bilateral ties to a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership”.

At around the same time, derogatory comments on social media against India and its leadership by several Maldivian ministers triggered an unseemly row. Though Muizzu suspended three deputy ministers, the damage was already done and the row led to calls for Indian tourists to boycott the Maldives.

Subsequently, Muizzu gave an ultimatum for India to withdraw more than 80 military personnel stationed in the Maldives in charge of operating two helicopters and an aircraft that were mainly used for humanitarian relief operations and medical evacuations. Two batches of Indian military personnel left in March and April and the remainder are set to be pulled out by May 10, to be replaced by civilian experts. These aircraft also played a crucial role in keeping a watch on regional waters and conducting surveillance of the Maldives’ exclusive economic zone, thereby helping monitor the activities of Chinese naval vessels.

Muizzu’s government has already concluded an agreement with Turkiye to acquire drones that will be used for maritime surveillance, while it has inked a pact with China for non-lethal military equipment and training. The Maldivian government has also finalised arrangements with Sri Lanka for medical evacuation services and signed another agreement with Turkiye for supplying food items such as flour.

Following the Maldives’ decision to scrap a 2019 agreement with India on conducting hydrographic surveys that bolstered scientific research and security cooperation, a question mark now hangs over a bilateral agreement for developing the harbour at the Uthuru Thila Falhu naval facility.

Muizzu’s pro-China tilt has come at a time when relations between New Delhi and Beijing are at a six-decade low because of the dragging military standoff in the Ladakh sector of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Both India and China have stepped up their efforts to project influence across the Indian Ocean region and the actions of the Muizzu government have given a fillip to Beijing’s moves.

After Sri Lanka announced a year-long moratorium on visits by foreign research vessels in January, mainly due to pressure from India and its partners in the Quad grouping, the Maldives allowed China's Xiang Yang Hong 03, a 4,500-tonne surveillance ship to dock at Male in February, ostensibly for replenishment and rotation of personnel.

People familiar with the matter believe the Indian side’s failure to develop closer ties with a wider spectrum of political leaders in the Maldives, while solely focusing on the relationship with the erstwhile government led by former president Ibrahim Solih, is among the reasons for the current state of affairs.

Writing recently for the United Service Institution of India, Maj Gen (retired) Sanjeev Chowdhry said a shift in the Maldives’ orientation towards China “raises substantial concerns for India, which could upset the geopolitical equilibrium in the Indian Ocean region, impacting India's traditionally established sphere of control”.

"The concerns revolve around China potentially forming a military base in the Maldives, posing a risk to India's maritime security and crucial sea routes,” Chowdhry said. He added, “This could lead to intensified conflicts and contests in the Indian Ocean. Given that a substantial portion of India's trade and energy imports relies on these waters, any Chinese control in the Maldives becomes a grave worry for India's strategic interests.”

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