Onus rests on Maldives The Excelsior 16 Jan 2024
In democratic nations, during elections, political leaders are known to make sweeping statements to win public support. Once they occupy the high table, they are expected to be suave in their comments. Playing to the gallery and demanding action from allies, they cannot do without, displays political immaturity. Leaders need to understand that playing on sentiments, especially where diplomatic ties are concerned can be damaging. This was evident in the recent Indo-Maldives spat.
Photographs of the present Maldivian President, Mohamed Muizzu, wearing an ‘India Out’ tee shirt throughout his electioneering have been on social media since his election. Rather than acknowledging continued Indian support in times of crisis, the first comments made by Muizzu was that India withdraw its ‘unarmed air force personnel’ deployed on the island for fulfilling Maldivian requirements. Without air assets, relief and rescue missions as also casualty evacuations will come to a standstill.
His anti-India sentiment, buoyed by his initial visits to Turkey and Beijing, ignoring India, influenced his staff. Thus, post a visit of PM Modi to Lakshadweep, which many Indians felt, due to deteriorating Indo-Maldivian ties, was aimed at promoting Lakshadweep as an alternative tourist destination, few of Muizzu’s junior ministers tweeted insulting comments on PM Modi, India and Indians as a community. The PM had not mentioned Maldives at all.
For Indians, these comments were derogatory and unacceptable. After all, India has always stood by Maldives. This year alone, India has budgeted a grant of Rs 400 crores for the country, which is almost 1.55% of its national budget. In 2022, India had provided USD 100 million to Male to overcome its financial and economic shortcomings. India has been the first responder whenever Maldives has faced a crisis.
While the Indian government refused to comment, apart from conveying its concerns to the Maldivian ambassador, by summoning him, the national public rose as one. Demand for Maldives as a tourist destination reduced. EaseMyTrip, an online travel booking platform with 8% market share stopped booking flights to Maldives, while encouraging domestic tourism. The response from Male was immediate. The Maldives Association of Tour and Travel Operators requested the online booking platform to ignore comments made by Muizzu’s ministers.
It issued a statement mentioning, ‘Tourism stands as the lifeblood of the Maldives, contributing over two-thirds of our GDP and providing livelihoods to approximately 44,000 Maldivians who work in the sector. The potential adverse impact on tourism holds the power to unleash severe repercussions on our economy, affecting the lives and well-being of many.’
With rising Islamization, Maldives may soon lose its tourist popularity and would need to seek other avenues to survive, for which Indian support would be paramount. Many political leaders, aware of India’s contribution to Maldivian economy demanded that the government act to restore ties.
There is no doubt it would take a few years before Lakshadweep’s infrastructure is brought to a level where it could compete with Maldives. But considered overall, India has far more tourist destinations, including beaches, to offer the public. With better offers and increased nationalism, Indian tourist destinations could witness an increase in visitors at the cost of Maldives.
In the midst of the ongoing diplomatic misunderstanding the Maldivian President visited China, where 22 agreements were signed including boosting tourism. The Chinese foreign ministry statement, issued post the Xi-Muizzu meeting, mentioned that Xi Jinping told his guest that China ‘supports the Maldives firmly in safeguarding its national sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and national dignity.’ It is possible that the statement was aimed at conveying to India that China is willing to step into India’s shoes in Maldives.
There is no doubt that Maldives, an island nation comprising of 27 atolls with an exclusive economic zone of almost 1 million square miles, on main global shipping routes, is essential for India’s maritime security. However, India cannot be held hostage to the whims of its leaders, who play on anti-India sentiments.
In 2023, the number of tourists which visited Maldives were around 18 Lakhs, of which almost 3 Lakhs were Indians. These figures cannot be made up by other countries. The reason is that most global middle-class tourists travel to locations which are close as also economical. Maldives from India is just 700 Kms while from the Chinese mainland 6000 Kms. For Chinese tourists, South East Asian destinations are more lucrative, thus preferrable.
Distance also impacts support in times of crisis. This is the reason why India has always been the first responder.
Muizzu would have attempted to exploit Indo-China rivalry to his benefit. It is possibly with this intent that his government sought a visit to India towards the end of January. He would be hoping to discuss further Indian support, based on what China promised. However, it is unlikely India would grant acceptance of a visit at this stage. Muizzu has to create conditions to defuse the ongoing crisis before Delhi would accord him the courtesy of a visit.
Deteriorating ties between neighbours never augurs well. India has experienced the same in its ties with Sri Lanka which tilted towards China. When caught in a debt trap, Columbo was compelled to turn towards India, which did not disappoint. In every election the battle is between pro-India or anti-India policies. The handing over of Hambantota port to China has added to India’s security concerns. India would not desire a similar scenario emerging in Maldives.
It is hoped that Muizzu understands that India has no ill-intent towards Maldives but it is the other way around. Indians were compelled to react as a nation as their leader and the Indian community were targeted and mocked by his ministers. Indian nationalism will never accept such insults. In the long term, India is there to assist its neighbours to grow, not to pull them down.
Thus, the onus on removing misunderstanding rests on Maldives. India supported Maldives even during the tenure of pro-China president Abdulla Yameen. It places no distinction on the bias of the government. It will support Maldives even now in case of an emergency. However, Maldives must note that henceforth, Indian support would never be unconditional. At the end of the day, it is the Maldives which will lose, not India.