Maldives: India back in lost game.

   By Ashok Sajjanhar ,  17-Oct-2018
Maldives: India back in lost game.

The formal announcement on 29th September, 2018 of the results of the Presidential election in Maldives, held on 23rd September, 2018, declaring Ibrahim ‘’Ibu’’ Mohamed Solih as the winner convincingly defeating his rival and incumbent Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom has closed the first chapter on the transfer of power in Maldives. There were serious apprehensions that the incumbent might indulge in dirty tricks and try to illegally cling to power, notwithstanding the convincing victory - more than 58% going for Solih while only around 41% voting for Yameen - when the President’s party asked the Election Commission to delay the formal announcement of the result on account of suspected fraud. Solih is expected to be sworn in on November 17, 2018 when Yameen’s term comes to an end. The provisional results that became available on the evening of 23rd September, 2018, the day the polling was held, were welcomed with jubilation and exblockquotement by the people of the country.

The first indication that some surprise might be in store became available when people in huge numbers thronged the polling booths to cast their votes. Many people had to stand more than 5 hours in queues before they could vote and the Election Commission extended the end-time for polling at several stations because of the large numbers that were waiting patiently to cast their ballots. Ultimately about 90% of the people eligible to vote exercised their franchise. It would not have come as a surprise to any keen observer of developments in South Asia that India was the first country to congratulate Maldives on the results of the election. The Statement by India’s Ministry of External Affairs welcoming the result was issued even before the Election Commission officially declared the results. This was closely followed up by a telephone call from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to President-elect Ibrahim Solih congratulating him on his victory. Modi also conveyed his good wishes for the strengthening of democracy, peace and prosperity in the island nation under the leadership of Solih.

The two leaders agreed to work together closely to further strengthen relations between the two countries. Solih invited PM Modi to his swearing-in ceremony in Male on 17th November, 2018. PM Modi also invited Solih to visit India at an early opportunity. It is expected that Modi will pay his first visit to the island nation before the year is out. Maldives is the only country out of the 9 SAARC countries that Modi has not visited since coming to power. He was due to go to Maldives in March, 2015 when he had traveled to Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka but canceled his visit at the last minute because of the arrest of former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed, considered close to India, and deteriorating bilateral ties between the two countries. The rapid flurry of activity by India to reach out to Maldives immediately after the informal results became available underscores the importance that this tiny nation of less than half a million holds for India.

India’s pro-active welcoming of the Maldivian election result was quickly followed by similar voices from Sri Lanka, USA, Canada and others. The US State Department spokeswoman said that USA was ready to work closely with the new government to expand cooperation on their shared interests in an independent and prosperous Maldives as well as a free and open Indian Ocean region. On the other hand, China extended a guarded welcome to the election of Ibrahim Solih - widely viewed as an ally of India - a day after he defeated the pro-Beijing incumbent Abdulla Yameen, and expressed hope that the new government would keep a conducive environment for Chinese investments. This quick show of huge international support for the election result was designed to send a clear and unequivocal message to the incumbent President Yameen that he should not try to play dirty and steal the election in an unethical manner from the opposition. The huge victory by the Joint Opposition candidate was registered despite the fact that the Yameen government left no stone unturned to intimidate and threaten the opposition parties.

After a long, uncomfortable, protracted silence after the election results became available, Yameen conceded defeat and called Solih to the presidential palace to congratulate him and express his support in serving the country and the people. This was however soon followed by an appeal from Yameen’s party, Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) to the Election Commission to delay announcement of the results on some claims of fraud. In response, all the four opposition parties who had jointly fielded Solih, three of whom had supported Yameen in the 2013 elections – Solih’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) along with the Jumhooree party, Adalat party, and a faction of the ruling PPM - appealed to the international community to ensure a peaceful and smooth transfer of power. This call was significant as Yameen has shown himself to be brazen and audacious in dealing with the opposition parties, the bureaucracy and the judiciary. In February, 2018, Yameen had imposed a state of emergency in Maldives after the island nation’s Supreme Court reversed criminal convictions against nine of his opponents including former President Mohamed Nasheed. The security forces had stormed into the Supreme Court and arrested two of its five sitting judges, including the Chief Justice, sealed parliament house and detained prominent opposition leaders. Imposition of emergency had evoked sharp Indian and international condemnation. They urged Yameen to restore the credibility of the electoral and political process by releasing political prisoners. The Emergency was lifted 45 days later.

In the months leading up to the election, international observers said Yameen had worked to stifle opposition to his candidacy by intimidating and imprisoning critics under broad counter-terrorism and anti-defamation laws. Yameen has defended such moves as necessary for national security. With a number of prominent opposition figures of the country put behind bars, former President Mohamed Nasheed living in exile, a defunct parliament and a crippled judiciary, there was a big question mark over a free and fair election in the Indian Ocean archipelago nation. The picturesque islands face an existential threat from climate change. A different kind of peril comes from Islamic extremist groups, which have recruited young men and women from the Maldives, a predominantly Muslim nation, to join their ranks in Syria and Iraq. India has been concerned with the political instability in the Maldives, which is just around 1,200 km away from the Indian mainland, for a variety of reasons. The country, home to around 22,000 Indians, is of strategic importance to India and its growing proximity to China is a matter of anxiety for New Delhi.

In July, India expressed concern over the announcement of the presidential election without allowing democratic institutions, including Parliament and the judiciary, to work in a free and transparent manner. Yameen’s defeat in the recent election was unexpected, with most observers predicting that Yameen would rig the elections using state machinery which he had subverted. Some International observers said they had been denied access to polling booths during the almost 12-hour long elections, while those that did get access said they were not allowed to speak to anyone. Only a few selected foreign journalists were allowed to cover the elections. The result could not have come at a more opportune moment for India. India was feeling unrelenting pressure of increasing Chinese presence in its neighbourhood. Maldives has recently emerged, next only to Pakistan, to use its rapidly expanding ties with China to cock a snook at India. What has been particularly galling is that Yameen rushed into a Free Trade Agreement with China last year; signed on China’s Belt and Road Initiative; changed its laws to lease out several prime islands to China; allowed China to build an observation post in Makunudhoo, the westernmost atoll not far from India; China loaned money to overhaul the international airport and financed construction of a bridge. All these have contributed to exacerbating India’s security challenges and frayed its relations with Maldives

In addition, Maldives has emerged as a stronghold of Islamic fundamentalism and Wahhabi ideology with financial help from Saudi Arabia, UAE and Pakistan. With these elections, India is back in the game. But it will have to play its cards judiciously. Its strategy of waiting patiently in the wings has most unexpectedly paid off handsomely. What worked in India’s favour was that, unlike Nepal, it did not allow itself to become an election issue inMaldives. Equally importantly, the results will be perceived as a huge strategic setback for China. China’s strategy in recent years has been to support autocrats and despots and dole out millions of easy money and purchase their loyalty. It has been extremely successful so far. Results in Maldives would serve as a serious reality check. It will however be fallacious to assume that China has been thrown out. China owns about 70% of Maldives’ debt. It will continue to have a significant say in policies pursued by Maldives, notwithstanding the fact that both former President Mohamed Nasheed and Ibrahim Solih have asserted that they will review all infrastructure contracts awarded to China as they were not commercially viable and lacked in transparency and democratic procedures. China has reacted scathingly to these statements terming them ‘’irresponsible.’’ During past seven months, former President Nasheed had called on India several times to militarily intervene in Maldives. Judiciously India did not act and decided to bide its time. That time has now come. India can move forward with confidence and circumspection to mend the battered bilateral relations and put them on an even keel.