The summoning of the Indian High Commissioner to Maldives, Akhilesh Mishra, by Maldives’ topmost diplomat, Foreign Secretary Ahmed Sareer, is the latest sign of a lack of trust that has developed between New Delhi and Malé over the last few years.
The provocation for Sunday’s summoning was a tweet by BJP’s Rajya Sabha MP Subramanian Swamy on August 24: “India should invade Maldives if rigging of election takes place”. The tweet included a link to a Maldivian news report on a meeting between Swamy and exiled former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed in Colombo last week. The Ministry of External Affairs’ official spokesperson Raveesh Kumar made it clear that Swamy’s tweeted opinion is “personal”, and does not reflect the views of the Indian government.
How distance grew
Maldives has emerged as the latest theatre of the geopolitical tussle between India and China, and Malé has been carefully using its newfound proximity to Beijing to make New Delhi wary. With Maldivian elections due on September 23, India does not want to be seen to be as interventionist.
The current controversy rings a bell with what Nasheed had sought in February this year, after Emergency was declared by President Abdullah Yameen. Nasheed had tweeted then, seeking India’s military intervention to release dissidents in prison. “We would like the Indian government to send an envoy, backed by its military, to free the judges and the political detainees, including former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, from their detention and to bring them to their homes. We are asking for a physical presence.”
While many in the strategic community recalled the events of 1988, when the Maldives with the help of Indian troops had successfully fended off an attempted invasion by foreign mercenaries, South Block was this time cautious about not heeding such requests for intervention.
The Emergency proclamation was seen by New Delhi as an attempt to quell opposition in Maldives. Back then, the Maldives Supreme Court had ordered the release of high-profile prisoners including Nasheed and former Vice President Ahmed Adeeb. It had also reinstated 12 MPs earlier stripped of their seats — in effect giving the Opposition coalition a majority, and making Yameen vulnerable to impeachment. Yameen reacted by ordering the arrest of Supreme Court judges and former President Gayoon, who is also his half-brother.
Following this, India constantly urged Maldives to restore democracy, but Emergency continued for 45 days before it was lifted. As relations between the two governments frayed, Malé asked New Delhi to take back two helicopters stationed for medical evacuation and rescue work. Rules were also tightened for Indian workers in the Maldives tourism sector, and work visas are being tightened, causing some worry in Delhi.
In June, a prominent leader from the Maldives ruling party, Ahmed Nihan, considered close to Yameen, was not allowed to enter India, prompting Malé to raise the issue with New Delhi.
While for the western community, the top priority is restoration of full-fledged democracy where the judiciary and political opposition are not jailed, for India what ranks high is the geopolitical stakes in the island.
With the Chinese expanding their footprint in Maldives through the Belt and Road Initiative, as they build massive infrastructure in and around Malé, India also faces an economic challenge with Maldives signing a Free Trade agreement last December during Yameen’s visit to China.
However, suspicions in Maldives on New Delhi’s role have grown after India expressed concern over the announcement of elections without allowing democratic institutions, including Parliament and the judiciary, to work in a free and transparent manner. India said it wanted “credible restoration” of the political process and the rule of law before the elections are conducted.
From India’s perspective, it would rather not get drawn into a interventionist role, although it has not objected to targeted sanctions on the Yameen regime imposed by the European Union. India believes it is a “responsible” power in the region, and as it urges major powers in the world to follow “rules-based order”, it cannot be seen as not following those rules. “We are an aspiring member of the United Nations Security Council. And our record in following the rules-based order will be dented, if we do not follow international rules and decide to intervene in some way in Maldives political situation. That is why we have steered clear of intervening in Maldives,” a top government functionary said.
For now, India will be watching the elections, where joint opposition candidate Ibrahim Solih will be contesting against Yameen. As the campaign heats up, India expects to be dragged more into the election rhetoric, but it wants to not be a factor in the polls — and that is the reason it chose to distance from Swamy’s tweet calling on India to “invade” if elections are rigged.