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Maldives head picks India for first visit

Abdulla Yameen

New Delhi, Dec. 2: Newly elected Maldives President Abdulla Yameen will visit India later this month on his first foreign trip in office that both nations will use to try and bridge yawning, frequently public differences that have opened up between Male and New Delhi over the past year.

Yameen will arrive in New Delhi on December 22 and will meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, foreign minister Salman Khurshid and foreign secretary Sujatha Singh. He will also attend the convocation of the South Asian University here on December 24, senior officials have confirmed to The Telegraph.

In campaigns ahead of the presidential polls, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Yameen’s half-brother and former autocrat who ruled the Maldives for 30 years, had argued that Male should distance itself from the West and India and nudge closer to China.

But Yameen’s decision to pick India as the destination for his first foreign visit after taking office is a signal that he may have decided to lower political rhetoric in recognition of strategic realities, diplomats from both India and the Maldives said.

“His visit is important because it will help us gauge whether the anti-India rhetoric we witnessed was merely a political campaign tool, or represents a definite tilt against us,” a senior official said.

Prime Minister Singh was among the first few world leaders to congratulate Yameen after he was elected in November following three aborted attempts at polls that showed former President Mohammed Nasheed as the single most popular candidate for Male’s top job.

Yameen, who emerged second most popular, won after he received support from all other rival political fragments in the Maldives in a straight run-off against Nasheed, viewed by many conservative sections of the Islamic country as too secular.

In his reply to Singh’s congratulatory message, Yameen had said he intended to make the Maldives’ ties with India a priority. India’s high commissioner to the Maldives Rajeev Shahare was the first foreign diplomat Yameen met after becoming the President.

But the overtures of the past month follow a geopolitical dance where Yameen’s family has repeatedly switched partners in recent years, and India remains cautious about Male’s moves.

In 1988, when Sri Lankan rebels landed in the Maldives and attempted to overthrow Gayoom, the then ruler had desperately called Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and asked for military assistance.

Rajiv sent special forces that defeated the attempted coup within a day, ensuring Gayoom’s rule for the next 20 years.

But Gayoom and his democratic successors — including Nasheed, often painted as pro-Indian — have aggressively courted China over the past few years, receiving billions of dollars in investment that have reduced Male’s traditional economic dependence on New Delhi.

China today sends more tourists to the Maldives in two months than the number India sends in a year. “We just don’t anymore have the kind of economic clout we did with the Maldives,” an official said.

Mohammed Waheed, who took over as the President after Nasheed stepped down in February 2012 alleging a coup attempt, scrapped Bangalore infrastructure firm GMR’s 25-year contract to build and operate an international airport in Male. Waheed’s government was supported by the Gayoom family.