India banks on goodwill as Solih emerges winner     

Solih is said to have extended an invitation to the Indian PM to be present at his installation, his pledge to counter the spread of Saudi Arabia backed radical Islam also finds resonance in New Delhi

PTI Photo
PTI Photo
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NH Web Desk

Ibrahim Mohamed Solih(54), the MDP (Maldivian Democratic Party) member backed by the opposition for the Presidency and declared the winner, is married to a cousin of the exiled former President Mohamed Nasheed and is known for his pro-India stands. Along with Nasheed, he was instrumental in restoring multi-party democracy to Maldives 2008.

Solih, a father of two children and known to be a sports enthusiast, had condoled the passing away of former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Indian cricket captain Ajit Wadekar and had also tweeted in solidarity to the victims of the century’s worst flood in Kerala.

While Solih is said to have extended an invitation to the Indian Prime Minister to be present at his installation in November, his pledge to counter the spread of Saudi Arabiabacked radical Islam also finds resonance in New Delhi. He is committed to review the 99-year-old lease of Faafu Atoll awarded to Saudi Arabia, which has been accused of backing the spread of radical and puritan Islam in Maldives.

Under Yameen, Maldives had been publicly embracing Beijing even as ties with traditional ally India suffered. The inauguration of Sinamale bridge, the flagship project of Maldives-China cooperation, in the first week of September was boycotted by Indian ambassador Akhilesh Mishra, after reports that only the Chinese envoy’s car would be allowed beyond the security checkpoint while other diplomats would have to get down and walk.

A suggestion by ex-president Nasheed that all the agreements that the Yameen administration had signed with China between 2013 to 2018 be reviewed has evoked a strong reaction from Beijing.

“If certain forces wantonly harm China’s interests out of political purposes, the Chinese side will firmly oppose it and resolutely protect the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese enterprises,” foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang warned this week.

China however softened its stand and washed its hands of the Yameen administration. A report in the Global Times, the Communist Party backed news publication, attributed “domestic, political factors,” for Yameen’s defeat. The report also held that both China and India could work together to boost Maldive’s development.

Why is the Maldives important?

Straddling across the Indian Ocean, Maldives is strategically located on the Indian Ocean. The smallest Asian country with a population less than half a million however oversees movement of 64% of the global oil trade. For both maritime security and stability in the neighbourhood, India is wary about growing influence of China and Pakistan in Maldives.

Solih’s victory

A disputed vote in 2013, which catapulted Abdullah Yameen to the Presidency saw Maldives revisiting ties with China. Following the visit of President Xi Jinping to the Maldives in 2014, the Indian Ocean island became a part of Beijing’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. A free trade agreement with China followed last year. In the first six months of 2018, China surpassed India as the second largest exporter to the Maldives, second only to the United Arab Emirates.

Besides, China has also lent the Maldives more than $1.5 billion toward construction of three mega projects, a loan that many economists believe would push it into a debt trap, as was the case with Sri Lanka.

Last month’s election followed allegations of massive financial irregularities by the clique and crackdown on opposition leaders, activists and judges and including those who questioned growing ties with China. Dissidents included members of the pro-India Maldives Democratic Party (MDP), whose leader Muhamed Nasheed has been forced to live in exile in Sri Lanka.

India’s options

While former Indian Navy chief Arun Prakash has called for patrolling by Indian naval ships around Maldives to “send a subtle message”, Indian government has been cautious so far.

“We don’t want instability in our neighbourhood. In the best interest of India’s maritime security, we don’t want a foreign power like China to be entrenched there,” explains former diplomat Kanwal Sibal. “China needs staging points in the Indian Ocean and Maldives is important in that regard.”

“Any change in the Maldives is critical for India, since most of our energy resources pass through Maldives,” says Anand Kumar, a fellow at New Delhi-based think tank IDSA and author of book “Multi-party Democracy in the Maldives and the Emerging Security Environment in the Indian Ocean Region”.

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