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Why Maldives and India have no choice to continue diplomatic thaw for long

Binny Yadav

Much is not good between India and its close neighbourhood Maldives. Although the recent diplomatic tussle which led to a social media slug fest between the two countries was triggered after the two ministers from the ruling government of Maldives criticised India while passing ‘derogatory’ remarks against prime minister Modi who ‘sort of’ promoted Lakshadeep as a tourist destination during his visit to the island, sentiments have been building up in Maldives against India for past some time.

Although the newly elected president of Maldives Mohamed Muizzu tried to diffuse the situation by sacking the ministers, but by then the damage was already done as an angry and aggressive brigade of ‘right wing’ supporters of ruling Bhartiya Janata Party in India unleashed a twitter (now X) backlash against Maldives which had an immediate impact. The campaign against travelling to Maldives had an immediate impact as  sharp drop was reported in the queries to Maldives travel by Indian tour operators while prices in Maldives hotels plummeted due to large scale cancellation by Indians.

To make matters worse came the maiden overseas visit of President Muizzu to China. Breaking the past traditions of the Maldivian presidents who chose India as their first overseas destination after taking over the office, Muizzu’s choice for China as his maiden overseas visit is a clear indication of a shift in diplomatic priorities for Maldives.

Going by the traditional relationship which India and Maldives have shared ever since Maldives gained Independence from the British rule in 1965 can these two neighbours afford to hold the diplomatic thaw for long?

Current cause of tension between India and Maldives

Indian prime Minister Modi who visited Lakshyadeep island early January 24’ had tweeted pictures of himself Snorkeling and praised the beauty of Indian island while not mentioning India’s picturesque neighbour Maldives in his post. Modi’s effusive praise of the beautiful scenery of the lesser-known archipelago Lakshadeep island may have been seen as a charm offensive to draw people there for vacation rather than Maldives.

Three Maldives officials responded to his post, describing Modi as a “clown,” “terrorist” and a “puppet of Israel,” according to Reuters.

The Maldives government moved quickly to distance itself from their comments, suspending the three officials – deputy ministers with the Ministry of Youth Employment, Information and Arts.

In a statement, the Maldives government said it was aware of “derogatory” comments made on social media but stressed the “opinions are personal” and do not represent its views.

Why India and Maldives are important neighbour

However, the underlying reasons run deeper, and could have a broader impact on India-Maldives relations. President Muizzu rode to power on the back of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM)’s “India Out” campaign.

According to a report issued by the European Union ruling coalition of the PPM and the People’s National Congress (PNC) deployed anti-India sentiments and attempted to spread disinformation around this (out India ) theme during the 2023 presidential elections.

Although India had been sensing the heat and in spite of the win by so called ‘anti-Indian forces’,  given the warm relationship it shared with his predecessor Ibrahim Solih, the Modi government had sent its Minister to his swearing in.

Now president Muizzu is visiting China and becoming the first President not to make India his first priority signals a sharp diplomatic shift in Maldives foreign policy choice. Even President Yameen, who began the “India Out” movement and cozied up to Beijing, visited Delhi first in 2014. President Muizzu has continued to press India on the withdrawal of its military personnel, even though India has clarified the importance of the presence of its military personnel in Male.

Strategic interdependence of India and Maldives

Although the current diplomatic situation appears tight between India and Maldives, looking at the realities on ground, both need each other for various reasons and can not afford to ignore the patch up for long due to strategic compulsions, if not for friendly needs. While the anti-India sentiment may have a political push, replacing India with China as a dependable neighbour for Maldives can not be a matter of choice in many ways. Maldives do not have much option of replacing India with China either in the Indian Ocean as China suffers from ‘tyranny of distance’ with a 6000 kilometere distance from Maldives. Whereas the distance between Male and Kochi in India is just 700 km in the Indian Ocean.

Maldives also depends on India not only for daily supplies of food (excluding the seafood) but also for medicine, and disasters.

Likewise, just one look at the world map explains the strategic significance of the island nation to India. Maldives is one key element in India’s maritime security calculus. The security scenario in India’s periphery in the Indian Ocean is very much linked to the maritime strength of Maldives. This is the big reason why India invests in Maldives’ security by training its defense forces.

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