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regular-article-logo Wednesday, 22 May 2024

Regional tremors

Now the geostrategic risks Muizzu took appear to have paid off. China knows that in Muizzu it has a partner who is in complete command in the Maldives, and who it can invest in

Charu Sudan Kasturi Published 24.04.24, 07:46 AM
Mohamed Muizzu

Mohamed Muizzu File Photo.

It is a landslide that has set off tremors in New Delhi. The People’s National Congress, led by President Moha­med Muizzu, has won a two-thirds majority in the Maldivian People’s Majlis or Parliament. The election verdict has dramatically strengthened Muizzu’s pow­er. Within the Maldives, the implications are significant. The Opposition Maldivian Democra­tic Party had a majority in the outgoing Parliament, thereby acting as a check on presidential powers. That is now gone.

The weekend’s results, though, are equally consequential for the Indian Ocean and its two giant powers, India and China. Muizzu won the presidential election on the back of a campaign criticising India’s influence over the Maldives and promising stronger ties with China. His party’s thumping win suggests that his message resonates with the people, despite the turbulence it has caused in Malé’s ties with New Delhi.

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While this will understan­dably worry New Delhi, the ball is now in the court of the Indian government led by the prime minister, Narendra Modi. Relations with the Maldives, its idyllic white sand beaches and strategic location, can still be managed smartly if diplomacy, and not jingoism, is allowed to drive India’s foreign policy. India must first acknowledge that, at this moment, Muizzu is in a stronger position than New Delhi when it comes to negotiating their relationship.

Muizzu gambled when he demanded that India withdraw a small contingent of troops from the Maldives. At the time, he had no legislative power because of the numbers in the Majlis and China had no way of knowing how much it could invest in a man who could prove to be a lame duck unless the constitution of the Parliament changed. Muizzu doubled down, breaking with a long-held tradition of new Maldivian presidents making India their first overseas destination after taking office. Instead, Muizzu visited Turkey and then China. He is yet to travel to India.

When some of his mi­nisters made derogatory remarks about India after Modi promoted the Lakshadweep islands as a tourist destination, a social media campaign asking Indians to boycott the Maldives gained steam. While the Indian government did not endorse that campaign, it did not disincentivise it either. It was a dangerous moment for the Maldives, which counts tourism as the principal driver of its economy.

Now the geostrategic risks Muizzu took appear to have paid off. China knows that in Muizzu it has a partner who is in complete command in the Maldives, and who it can invest in, including financially. The Maldives has an upcoming debt payment to China. Beijing has more incentive now to renegotiate that and give the Maldives some relief. While the number of Indian tourists visiting the Maldives dropped by nearly 40% in the first three months of the year, a far greater surge in Chinese tourists more than compensated for it.

Yet, while all of this should chasten those who mistake flag-waving for diplomatic clout, India still has aces up its sleeve — and the Maldives knows it. When the Maldives faces a drinking water crisis, as it did in 2014, it needs to turn to its closest neighbour, India. New Delhi is also, by some accounts, Malé’s largest aid provider. Indian companies, backed by New Delhi, are behind major infrastructure projects in the Maldives — it was as the mayor of Malé that Muizzu built his reputation as someone who could deliver on bridges and highways. And the engineer-turned-politician has made it clear that he wants Indian projects in the Maldives to continue.

This is just one of a series of gestures Muizzu has made in recent weeks to try to soften ties with India. In an interview in March, he said that India would remain his country’s closest ally, asking New Delhi to ease up on some of Malé’s debt commitments. The archipelago nation owes India at least $400 million in loan repayments.

Muizzu met Modi in December in Dubai, and the two set up a mechanism for consultations between their offi­cials. That group has met thrice and the two nations held a joint naval exercise in February. These are opportunities that India must seize. With a scalpel, not a sledgehammer, New Delhi can still salvage this relationship.

Charu Sudan Kasturi is a senior journalist who writes on foreign policy and international relations

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