Colombo, September 15: India and the Maldives, which have had strained relations since the overthrow of President Mohamed Nasheeed in 2012, are now reaching out to each other driven by realpolitik, writes P.K.Balachandran in Daily Express.
India and the Maldives drifted apart after the overthrow of India-friendly President Mohamed Nasheed by street violence and intimidation in 2012. Nasheed’s successors, Mohamed Waheed Hussain and Abdulla Yameen, were not only ill-disposed towards India, but had swung towards its rival, China, which has been establishing itself as a power in all the counties of South Asia and the Indian Ocean.
Soon after Mohammad Waheed Hassan took over from Nasheed, he cancelled the US$ 500 million Male Airport development project which the Nasheed regime had given to the Indian firm GMR in 2010.
Waheed said that the deal had been corrupt. The project was subsequently handed over to the Chinese company, Beijing Urban Construction Group, in a US$ 800 million deal.
However, a Maldivian anti-corruption watchdog which investigated the GMR deal, found that there was no trace of corruption. GMR filed a case in the Singapore Supreme Court, but the court upheld the Maldivian government’s action. In 2016, GMR got a favorable verdict from the Arbitration Tribunal in Singapore which said that the Maldivian government should pay compensation to GMR, including the US$ 358 million GMR had taken as a loan from Axis Bank, an Indian bank.
The GMR affair left a bad taste in New Delhi’s mouth.
After Abdulla Yameen was elected President in 2013, the move to get closer to China got a new impetus. In 2014, the Maldives formally joined the controversial Chinese mega project – the 21 st. Maritime Silk Road project which later became the One Belt One Road (OBOR) project.
Whatever the nomenclature, whether it is the Silk Road or the One Belt One Road or the String of Pearls project, China’s endeavor set off alarm bells in New Delhi and Washington.
While India was sulking over the treatment given to it by the Waheed and Yameen regimes, and Prime Minister Modi avoided the Maldives during his tour of South Asian countries, the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, visited Male in 2014 and pledged to take Sino-Maldivian relations to new heights.
While Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and its Western backers were trying to portray the Maldives as a hotbed of Jehadi Islamists to scuttle the tourism industry and weaken Yameen, China sent massive numbers of tourists to the Maldives. With the result, the Maldivian tourist industry continues to account for 26% of Maldives’ GDP and 60% of its foreign exchange receipts.
Though both China and the Maldivian government kept saying that China’s interest was purely commercial, and not at all military, New Delhi and Washington were sure that China had military and strategic objectives in the Indian Ocean region and that it would use its economic projects to gain strategic dominance through military might.
What irked India and the US especially, was the Yameen government’s decision in 2015 to legally enable foreigners investing a minimum of US$ 1 billion to take land on freehold basis if 70% of the land was reclaimed from the sea.
This, it was feared, would be fully exploited by the deep pocketed Chinese. They would take over lands, and build their economic and strategic outposts. The Maldives is ideally suited for this scheme as it is an archipelago of 1,200 tiny islands, with only 200 of them being inhabited.
Both India and the US are bothered about rising Islamization and radicalization in the Maldives as they see it as a security threat in the light of the global activities of the ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Of the two, it is the US which is more vocal about it.
Acting US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Alice Wells told a Congressional Subcommittee hearing recently: “Lack of higher educational opportunities, high youth unemployment, rise of social media, and weak institutions all contribute to an environment in which Islamist violent extremism is on the rise. Per capita, the Maldives has produced more terrorists who have fought in Iraq and Syria than any other country in the world.”
But Maldivian officials and independent observers say that though Maldivian culture is changing because of the introduction of Salafi Islam, and more men sport beards and women wear the hijab these days, militant and violent Islam has by no means taken root.
Islamization has not imperiled the advancement of women. “You can find women in all walks of life even at the top most level,” said Colombo-based diplomat Hussain Mazin.
“Islamic education does not take place in Madrasas but is part of the curriculum in government run schools.And the type of Islam taught here is moderate,” said Imjad Jaleel, Chief Communications Strategist in the Office of President Yameen.
The Maldivian Ambassador in Colombo, Mohamed Hussain Shareef, said that there has been no terrorist attack after the blast at theSultan Park in Male in 2007, which injured 12 foreigners.
“The government has a zero tolerance towards terrorism, and has set up several mechanisms to thwart terrorism, ” Shareef said.
On US official Alice Wells’ contention that the per capita contribution of the Maldives to ISIS fighting personnel is the highest in the world, Shareef said that such a statistic is very misleading when the total number of people in the Maldives is taken into account.
According to institutions which track foreign recruits to the ISIS, Maldives is way down in the line in numbers. While a 100% Muslim country like the Maldives has only 200 fighting in Iraq and Syria, non-Muslim Western countries have much more. Britain has over 800 and France and Russia over 600.
However, Maldivian political parties do use Islam to legitimize themselves and secure greater number of votes. The Islamist Adaalath Party is wooed by both the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives and the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). This is normal in all South Asian countries and not peculiar to the Maldives.
The most extreme Jehadi groups are small and have little influence. For example they are against democracy and elections ,but the voting percentage in the Maldives is 90.
India, especially the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, is sensitive to the inroads of Islamic fundamentalism in the Maldives and the region.But its main worry is the inroad of China.
While Prime Minister Modi skipped the Maldives in his South Asian tour, he did make up later realizing that the best way to stem the advance of the Chinese juggernaut is to engage the Maldivians irrespective of the political color or the nature of its government in Male. New Delhi saved the Maldives from Commonwealth sanctions for its undemocratic actions.
In 2016, Yameen was in New Delhi and Modi and he established a good rapport. India showed an interest in ensuring the security of the Maldives – being the “net security provider” in the Indian Ocean.
And Yameen, not only assured India that the Maldives will not allow any foreign military bases, but acknowledged that his country was saved by Indian naval intervention in 1988, when a Maldivian dissident group aided by Sri Lankan Tamil militants, tried to overthrow President Gayoom.
As a result of the recent rapprochement, India is likely to get projects in the Maldives. However, unlike the US, India is unlikely to take sides in the country’s political affairs, wishing to have good relations with the PPM as well as the MDP.
MDP leader Nasheed was recently in New Delhi at the instance of a government-funded think tank.
(Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi warm up to each other in New Delhi, April 2016.Photo PTI)