By Suhasini Haidar/The Hindu
New Delhi, October 7: The new Maldives President-elect’s transition team hopes to invite Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the swearing-in ceremony of Mohamed Muizzu in Male next month, says Maldives speaker and former President Mohamed Nasheed.
In an interview to The Hindu, Mr. Nasheed — who has broken away from outgoing President Ibu Solih and his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) to form his own party, which could join the incoming government — said that he would also send an invitation to Mr. Modi for the ceremony expected to be held on November 17. He stressed his belief that the new Maldivian President would not be “anti-India” or “pro-China”, as he has generally been portrayed in recent commentary.
Maldives President-elect Mohamed Muizzu of the People’s National Congress party delivers a speech during a gathering with supporters following the country’s presidential election in Male on October 2, 2023. | Photo Credit: AFP
Mr. Modi had attended Mr. Solih’s swearing-in ceremony in 2018, a rare gesture that he has not made for any other leader in the neighbourhood thus far. Dr. Muizzu — the former Mayor of Male who campaigned on a “sovereignty” plank in the election — had served in the Yameen government as Minister for Housing (2013-2018), and was responsible for many of the infrastructure projects that Chinese companies won at the time, leading to the impression that he will follow the policies that had earlier strained ties with India.
Combating anti-India perceptions
“The international media has characterised our election as between India and China, and also has characterised Dr. Muizzu as pro-China. I don’t think all this was exactly true,” Mr. Nasheed said, claiming that the “India Out” campaign started by the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), which is part of the ruling coalition, was not the “main election issue”. Anti-incumbency was the chief reason for the MDP’s loss in the Presidential run-off poll held last Saturday, Mr. Nasheed said.
“The campaign against Indian military presence here has subsided and that really wasn’t the main campaign point… My feeling is that he will continue with our foreign policy… He would know that the relations with India go back hundreds of years, and I can’t see much changing because of a change in government,” Mr. Nasheed said, when asked to comment on Dr. Muizzu’s statement at a public rally this week that the people had voted against “foreign troops”. He indicated that the President-elect may allow approximately 75 Indian military personnel stationed in the Maldives to stay and help maintain and operate the helicopters and Dornier aircraft gifted by India.
Harbour project deal
Every Maldivian government, dating back to the rule of former President Abdul Gayoom, had appreciated the role of Indian security forces in the Indian Ocean, Mr. Nasheed said. He added that a rollback of the now-contentious Uthuru Thilafalhu Coastguard Harbour project, based on a deal with India signed in 2021, was unlikely.
“I can’t see why we would want to do anything to change this agreement. There’s nothing wrong with it,” said Mr. Nasheed, adding that the reason for the controversy was the previous government’s refusal to make the Uthuru Thilafahlu Project agreement for the development of a harbour to dock, maintain and repair Maldivian National Defence Forces’ coast guard vessels.
“I’m most sensitive of our security and safety and we know that terrorist organisations can come from anywhere. A few hundred people can come and really disturb the Maldives, and there’s nothing better than having closer defence cooperation with India,” Mr. Nasheed added.
While Mr. Nasheed had cordial ties with India during his tenure as Maldives President from 2008 to 2012, the relationship went sour over the past decade over the impression that New Delhi had switched its loyalties to the Solih government.
After breaking from Mr. Solih and the MDP in June this year, Mr. Nasheed launched a new party, called The Democrats. In the Presidential poll, it put up its own candidate against Mr. Solih and won about 7% of the vote. This was nearly enough, say analysts, to have helped the incumbent President win narrowly if the MDP had stayed united. When asked if he had played spoiler, Mr. Nasheed rejected the charge.
“I have been telling everyone since 2020 that Mr. Solih would not win a re-election bid,” said Mr. Nasheed, arguing that the current Presidential election format in a multiparty system made it difficult for any incumbent to win more than 50% of the vote. The Maldivian Speaker has now been pushing for a referendum to move to a more parliamentary system, and said that he would try to make the case for that with the new President once he is sworn in.