On the campaign trail, Abdulla Yameen said he did not accept defeat easily. The Opposition speculated that the Maldivian president would do everything to stay in power. So, when he went on state television on Monday within hours of the election commission endorsing the result of the presidential poll conducted the day before, many in the Maldives feared the worst. But Yameen wanted to accept defeat.
“My five-year term has been a period in which we faced a lot of difficulties,” he said, without getting into details. Some “illegal acts” had been done and he had worked hard to ensure they did not harm the people. “But yesterday, the Maldivian people made their decision about me. So, I have decided to accept the result and stay in service to the people in any way I can.”
It was an anticlimactic end to a regime that gave China unprecedented access to the strategic Indian Ocean region. No wonder India described the result as the “triumph of democratic forces”, adding that it looked forward to “further deepening our partnership”. But Delhi’s reluctance to act against Yameen’s authoritarian regime beyond issuing statements about the deterioration of democracy appears to have left the victorious Opposition bitter. Two days before the election, former president Mohamed Nasheed attributed India’s timidity to a “lack of imagination”. With his party’s candidate being the president-elect, how optimistic should India be about the resumption of friendly relations?
India has long regarded the Indian Ocean region as its backyard. In addition to exporting medicine, textiles, and agricultural and poultry products worth $100 million a year to the Maldives, India has a naval presence in the country’s waters, and they often conduct joint military exercises. Still, the secrecy surrounding Male’s Free Trade Agreement with China last year made India suspicious and soured relations. It did not help that Yameen sacked three members of the Local Government Authority for meeting the Indian ambassador Akhilesh Mishra soon after the China deal was signed.
“I once asked the Indian ambassador, ‘what is your problem?’” Mohamed Shainee, the outgoing fisheries minister and a Yameen confidant, told this reporter earlier this month. “He said, ‘China is the problem. They are putting a military base there.’ I said, ‘I will allow you access to any place in the Maldives that you want. Show me where a military base is with China.’”
But China’s investment, as an Indian official familiar with the matter pointed out, is really a “debt trap” designed to consolidate its strategic footprint in the Indian Ocean. In June, Gateway House, a think tank in Mumbai, assessed the three largest Chinese projects in the Maldives to be worth over $1.5 billion, nearly 40% of the country’s GDP.
Although Nasheed has promised to renegotiate the debt, he has admitted he does not known the terms of the deals: amounts, repayment timelines or the government’s contractual obligations.
“The China-Maldives relationship is likely to continue no matter who is in power,” said Sathiya Moorthy, senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in India. “Given the kind of money China has invested [in infrastructure projects in the country], it is not possible for the Maldives to repay it across the table with a single cheque.”
Moorthy noted that the president-elect Ibu Solih too has said the relationship with China will not change. But while Yameen had not denied a military pact with Beijing, he added, it will not happen with the change in government.
On the fence
India has a policy of not interfering directly in the domestic matters of its neighbours, with Bangladesh in the 1970s and Sri Lanka in the 1980s being the exceptions. Nevertheless, it has been a norm among western countries with diplomatic presence in the region to consult or take cues from India. Explaining India’s role in the region, Paul Godfrey, Chargé d’Affaires of the Delegation of the European Union to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, had told this reporter in 2016, “The role of India is of paramount importance. If India is to take a lead, we, the other leading players, would look at very carefully. If India wasn’t on board, it would make it extremely hard to enforce.”
After the Maldives’ opposition parties formed a coalition in June 2016, they asked India to help impose targeted sanctions on the Yameen government’s leaders and isolate it diplomatically. But despite meeting ministers and senior officials in the Bharatiya Janata Party, they could not get Delhi to help them. Some efforts by the Indian embassy in the Maldives to put more pressure on the Yameen regime did not achieve its desired outcome either.
“When we went to India, we did not go as a political opposition,” said Hamid Abdul Ghafoor, the spokesperson for the Maldives United Opposition. “It was because our country had a problem and we were looking for assistance. Nasheed had repeatedly said we were not interested in what Delhi thinks [of us]. We are interested in India to be a driving force for democracy. But Delhi’s was a very distant face.”
In the run-up to the election, the European Union and the United States threatened to impose sanctions if Yameen tried to rig the voting, and still India remained a fence-sitter.
The let-down by Delhi, Hamid said, was “not personal, only ideological”. Still, he added, the new government will resume friendly relations with all traditional allies. He reiterated Nasheed’s assurance to renegotiate the Chinese debt in a way that is “pragmatic but principled”.
There will also be resumption of dialogue, transparency and due consultation with India in matters that affect its interests in the region. “We will be not shy from India,” Hamid said. “We will [engage] full-on. We see that as our neighbourhood, our future.”