On a country-wide basis, Maldives is only in the recesses of India's consciousness. It came to the forefront, in the past, in cases of truly extraordinary developments such as the foiling of a foreign mercenary aided coup attempt by India in 1988, Saarc summits, or as it did when its nationals were implicated in the, judicially held false, ISRO spy case. Over the past couple of years though Indian public attention has focussed much more on the Maldives because of the hostile and provocative approaches of President Abdulla Yameen towards India, and China's ingress into the island country. No surprises then if the just concluded Maldives election which saw the unanticipated and decisive victory of the combined opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih over Yameen attracted substantial national attention.
The internal politics of Maldives has been unsettled since President Nasheed, elected in 2008, was ousted ultimately through the action of the police forces in 2012. After a period in jail Nasheed left the country and Vice-President Waheed became the President. Elections were held in 2013. They were marred by controversy and finally Yameen came through as the winner. Yameen is a half-brother of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who ruled the Maldives with an iron hand for three decades ending in 2008. Yameen spent long years as an official and in his half-brother's cabinet. He earned a reputation for strong arm methods and an anti-India attitude though along with other Saarc leaders he attended the inauguration ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May 2014.
In September 2014 Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Maldives on a tour that brought him to India as well. With Xi in Male, Maldives capital, the two countries announced that a Chinese company would upgrade the Male international airport though not run it. This naturally did not go down well in India for Yameen's predecessor had cancelled the over US$ 500 million project which was being undertaken since 2010 by an Indian company. The company had taken the Maldives government to international arbitration which ruled in its favour in June 2014 indicating that the contract cancellation was essentially politically motivated by Waheed. Clearly, Yameen by not finding a way to restore it to the Indian party had gone along with his predecessor's approach.
China moved in swiftly to avail of the opportunity provided by Yameen to engage in infrastructure projects and push linkages in the tourism sector which is of critical importance to the Maldives economy. In an article for the Mumbai based think-tank Gateway House in February this year Amit Bhandari and Chandani Jindal wrote on China's engagement in Maldives. They noted that China "focused on infrastructure, housing, power and hotels". They estimated "the three largest Chinese projects are together worth US$ 1.5 billion—more than 40% of the Maldivian GDP". In addition, Yameen concluded a free trade agreement, a thousand-page document, that was endorsed by parliament with hardly any discussion. The number of Chinese tourists increased from 60,000 in 2009 to 360,000 in 2015; in a span of 6 years Chinese tourists became the largest component of the around 1.3 million tourists Maldives receives annually. Chinese companies began to look at leasing islands to build resorts.
Maldives location is attractive to China for strategic reasons as it expands its presence in the Indian ocean. China denies that it has any interest in developing a base in Maldives but as it has 'acquired' the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka and the Gwadar port in Pakistan its assertion cannot be taken at face value. This is especially so on account of the Chinese reaction to Yameen's strong-arm actions in February this year. When the Supreme Court ordered the release of some dissidents and reinstated legislators Yameen declared a state of emergency and arrested the Chief Justice and former President Gayoom. Except for China other countries were sharply critical of Yameen. When Nasheed sought India's physical intervention China warned India to stay away. As the Modi government took the diplomatic route an emboldened Yameen took provocative steps. He decided to dilute the traditional bilateral security relationship by asking India to take back the two surveillance helicopters and ordered the Indian pilots to leave. Later he dealt a general blow by asking businesses not to hire Indians and indicated that work permits of Indians would not be renewed.
While many members of the security community urged India to take physical action, it held its hand even if that projected a helpless India in the face of China's assertive moves in a country important to Indian strategic interests. The vote against Yameen indicates that the Maldives people do not want an unbalanced foreign policy. They realise India's importance in the region and value the relationship. Now, if Yameen seeks to act to erode the elections and stay in power beyond mid-November when his term formally ends, the Modi government should physically act to prevent him from doing so.
India was the first country to welcome Solih's victory. The US and the European countries have done so too. China has acknowledged the victory but cautioned against 'irresponsible' positions on Maldives-China cooperation. There is no doubt that it will try to prevent Solih doing a Mahathir on Chinese projects.
The time is ripe for India to quietly but firmly assert its legitimate interests in the neighbourhood. Maldives developments give it an opportunity to do so. Modi would do well to visit Maldives soon after the new government takes over and enunciate India's neighbourhood doctrine from Male.