Maldives has “re-embark(ed) on its democratic journey”. Ibrahim Mohammed Solih, President of Maldives, who was speaking during a state visit to India a little over two months from claiming victory in the Maldivian presidential election in September 2018, also quoted from first Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘tryst with destiny’ speech to describe the landmark moment.
President Solih’s words assumed special significance as his party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), secured a decisive victory – 65 out of 87 seats (76%) – in the April 6 elections for the Majlis, the unicameral parliament.
The vote was eloquent indication of the electorate’s desire to replace previous president, Abdulla Yameen. His rule had been characterised by a mix of excessive centralisation of power, corruption born of the politician-business axis and mega projects with unaffordable external debts, which ignored the real needs of the people. In contrast, Solih’s administration stands for delivering basic services to all citizens, strengthening democratic institutions and “bringing corruption, past and present to book”.
The April 6 win is special because it highlights two specific features of democratic politics.
First, Solih won the presidency with the help of other political parties and formed a coalition cabinet; the MDP now has an absolute majority in the parliament. Enlightened leader that he is, he has made it clear that the coalition nature of his government will not change. Solih’s faith in political harmony and consensus bears comparison with India’s 10th prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s inclusive approach, which endeared him to so many, even his political adversaries.
Secondly, MDP has not one, but two, top leaders: Solih, and Mohammed Nasheed, the first democratically elected president who governed during 2008-2012. Observers say that the party wants to reform the constitution and shift from the presidential to parliamentary system, a scheme designed to make Nasheed prime minister and Solih the titular president, but informed sources have a different view: development, not constitutional reform, is the immediate priority for the MDP and its dual leadership, and such a change may not come into being for some time.
Ties with India
New Delhi’s experts on diplomacy in the region have largely missed how a change of government in a neighbouring country can bring about a sea change in its policy approach to India. Maldives-India relations deteriorated progressively during Yameen’s tenure (2013-2018). As he persisted in curbing democracy at home and driving his nation towards greater dependence on China’s dubious largesse, he showed utter insensitivity to India’s concerns and interests. His provocations were several: visa curbs on Indian nationals, restrictions imposed on Indian diplomats wanting to meet local officials and demand for the withdrawal of Indian helicopter and crew from Maldives. The Indian authorities were patient, not yielding to the temptation to intervene militarily.
As power changed hands in Male last November, the two governments have worked (from November 2018 through March 2019) to undo damage done in the past and restore cooperation. Five high-level visits have been exchanged during this period. Solih’s was the most important of them because of its two-fold outcome. Maldives assured India that it would respect her security and strategic concerns. To this end, their talks on defence started well, with Defence Minister Mariya Ahmed Didi visiting India recently when she interacted not only with her counterpart, but also the three service chiefs and the head of the Indian Coast Guard.
The reciprocal aspect of this was that India resolved to help Maldives address development priorities and challenges. The G-to-G agreement to extend unprecedented financial assistance of $1.4 billion has begun to be implemented. On 18 March 2019, the Export Import Bank of India (Exim) signed an agreement with Maldives to make available credit worth $800 million for a variety of development projects.
The recent Majlis election results are certain to strengthen these positive trends in the relationship.
China: changing equations?
The notion that with the recent political changes, India has ‘won back’ – and China has ‘lost’ – Maldives ignores a far more complex reality. President Solih first said that the friendship with India is “ancient beyond memory” before adding: “We want to rekindle old friendships while fostering new ones.”
During Yameen’s presidency, China made several important gains in Maldives. Some of these have now been put on hold. For example, the present government has kept in abeyance the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between Maldives and China, the approval for which was rushed through the parliament in November 2017. Moreover, while Male continues to measure the size of the country’s total debt to China, it seems inclined to reorient its policy on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Neither the president nor foreign minister has visited China so far. President Solih is unlikely to attend the second BRI Forum, due to open in Beijing this week, say informed sources. If this turns out to be true, it will be a significant indicator of the changing mood in South Asia about China’s strategy on mega projects.
All this places a heavy burden of responsibility on India’s shoulders. The government’s determination to do right by Maldives denotes that India’s political leaders, diplomats, project managers and national business chambers must put their best foot forward to fulfil the country’s commitments. Its citizens too have a role to play: they can contribute towards strengthening mutual friendship through tourism – a paradise beckons!
Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, Gateway House. A former ambassador to several countries, he headed the division responsible for relations with Maldives in the Ministry of External Affairs.
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 President’s office Republic of Maldives, Speech by His Excellency President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih at the Banquet hosted by the President of India, 17 December 2018, <http://www.presidencymaldives.gov.mv/Press/Article/20371>
 Election Guide, Republic of Maldives, Election for Majlis (Maldivian People’s Council), 6 April 2019, <http://www.electionguide.org/elections/id/3142/>
 President’s office Republic of Maldives, Statement by President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, 7 April 2019, <https://presidency.gov.mv/Press/Article/20930>
 These were: PM Modi’s visit (November 2018), visit by Foreign Minister of Maldives (November 2018), President Solih’s visit (December 2018), visit by Defence Minister of Maldives (January 2019) and visit by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj (March 2019).
 Rajiv Bhatia, Island Hopping, The Hindu, 22 Dec 2019, <https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/island-hopping/article25802128.ece>
 President’s office Republic of Maldives, Ministry of External Affairs Government of India, Joint Statement on the occasion of State Visit of the President of the Republic of Maldives to India, 17 December 2018, <https://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/30765/Joint+Statement+on+the+occasion+of+State+Visit+of+the+President+of+the+Republic+of+Maldives+to+India+December+17+2018>
 Ibrahim Mohamed Solih at the Banquet hosted by the President of India, <http://www.presidencymaldives.gov.mv/Press/Article/20371>
 Maldives Independent, China-Maldives free trade deal rushed through parliament, 30 November 2017, <https://maldivesindependent.com/politics/china-maldives-free-trade-deal-rushed-through-parliament-134382>
 Rajiv Bhatia, Maldives’ new balance, 13 December 2018 <https://www.gatewayhouse.in/maldives-new-balance/>