India-Maldives ties suffer unprecedented damage due to social media fracas

The result of the Male mayoral election, however, proves that anti-India rhetoric is not pre-eminent for Maldivian voters.

Published : Jan 25, 2024 11:00 IST - 5 MINS READ

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu at a welcome ceremony in Beijing on January 10. After the visit, Muizzu said he would operationalise the 2017 Chinese free trade agreement.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu at a welcome ceremony in Beijing on January 10. After the visit, Muizzu said he would operationalise the 2017 Chinese free trade agreement. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

Amid the ongoing major upheaval in India-Maldives relations, a development in the capital city of Malé proved once again, if at all any proof was required, that it is local problems and not rhetoric on international concerns that influence voting patterns in any nation.

On January 13, 58 days after former Malé Mayor Mohamed Muizzu was elected his country’s President, the citizens of Malé overwhelmingly decided to reject his choice for the post of Mayor, Azima Shakoor, and elected the rival Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) representative, Adam Azim.

Apart from establishing how voters in a country can be influenced, the election also laid to rest two widespread assumptions: first, that strategic decisions of a country lead to a positive or negative vote, and second, that the MDP was weakened after its defeat in the second round of the presidential election held in November 2023.

Also Read | India-Maldives row: Is social media driving foreign policy?

These two developments are critically important as Maldives gets ready for yet another election, this time to elect parliamentarians, on March 17. The MDP has reclaimed Malé, where more than a third of the country’s population resides. The party has proved that it is a viable entity even if its head, Ibrahim Solih, is not a charismatic leader.

Mayoral victory

The Adam Azim victory was also made possible by support from voters outside the MDP. Notably, he had the backing of two members of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s family: daughter Dunya Maumoon, a political lightweight; and son Faris Maumoon, who believes in clean politics and has people-connect.

In the anxiety not to be left out of the India-Maldives spat story, many observers in India and abroad had cited strategic issues as an influencer of electoral choices in the nation of a thousand islands. The most cited refrain was “Muizzu won the presidential election on an anti-India (or “India Out”) platform.” That theory is now being questioned.

In fact, Muizzu tried his best to influence the outcome of the election by using both anti-India rhetoric and the development agenda. In late December, he told a radio show that he had appealed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to expedite the completion of the 6.7-km Thilamale Bridge project, which will link Malé with other key islands, by 2025. India is helping construct the $500 million project: $400 million as loan and $100 million as grant.

Muizzu promised additional housing, was proactive, and walked around on slushy roads as rain pounded Malé, and was seen as projecting the image of a hands-on President. The campaign was subtle but hard to miss in the run-up to the mayoral election.

“On January 13, Muizzu, in a thinly veiled reference to India, said, “We may be small, but we won’t be bullied” and asserted that the “Indian Ocean is not in anyone’s backyard”.”

While Muizzu did try to stay close to the development agenda, he did not want to antagonise his support base among the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) voters, who were being lured to the new party floated by PPM founder and former President Abdulla Yameen. He kept up his “India Out” rhetoric and was egged on that path by the Indian right-wing attack on Maldives as a tourist destination from January 6 onwards.

In fact, that is why Muizzu decided to counter Yameen by adopting a strident anti-India stance, much tougher than that of Yameen, so that members of the PPM, the second largest party in Maldives, switched to his side. It was a case of a politician using geopolitics as an opportunity to widen his local support base.

After Muizzu met Modi in Dubai on December 1, press releases from both sides did not mention withdrawal of Indian troops from Maldives, but the very next day, after he landed in Malé, he claimed that India had agreed to do so. And in mid-December, Maldives decided not to renew the 2019 joint hydrographic survey with India, and the agreement expired in 2023.

On January 14 this year, Muizzu demanded that all Indian military personnel leave Maldives by March 15.

Highlights
  • Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu tried his best to influence the outcome of the Male mayoral election by using both anti-India rhetoric and the development agenda.
  • On January 14 this year, Muizzu demanded that all Indian military personnel leave Maldives by March 15.
  • Former Maldivian government officials said that India-Maldives relations have never been so bad.

Muizzu’s flex

After the merciless Indian right-wing attack on him and Maldives in general, Muizzu, who was already in China, proclaimed that he would operationalise the Chinese free trade agreement of 2017, which was in cold storage after Ibrahim Solih was elected in 2018.

On January 13, Muizzu, in a thinly veiled reference to India, said, “We may be small, but we won’t be bullied” and asserted that the “Indian Ocean is not in anyone’s backyard”.

Also Read | Maldives power play: Muizzu consolidates control, leaving Yameen in exile

A former Maldivian official, who did not want to be named because of the circumstances, conceded that Muizzu’s comments might have been “immature”, but also pointed out that when India raised the issue of Maldivian officials making offensive posts on X (formerly Twitter) against Modi and Indians in general, they were reprimanded and even suspended, but there had not been any similar action from India against online trolls.

“There has been no action against those in India for the vicious attack on Maldives, its people, and officials,” he said, adding that there was not even an acknowledgement from India that anything of this sort had happened.

In his assessment, and that of another official, who has served a rather long tenure in the Maldivian government, India-Maldives relations have never been so bad.

Asked how it compares to 2012, when Maldives cancelled a contract awarded to GMR, the airport operator, he said: “This is a few 2012s put together.”

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