Maldives misadventures, featuring Muizzu govt and the media

But what’s even the link between Modi’s Lakshadweep blitz and Maldives, sections of the media wonder, days after drawing the connection themselves in jingoistic tones.

WrittenBy:Aban Usmani
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Mohamed Muizzu’s government in the Maldives is caught in a melee. Having stormed to power over a hyper-nationalist poll campaign against “Indian military presence”, just four months later, it’s now requesting China to send in more tourists to the island nation after a diplomatic stand-off with India and the looming threat of an Indian tourism boycott.

But that isn’t the only strain of irony to that Indo-Pacific tale, it seems. 

The same sections of the Indian media that are now questioning the link between Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Lakshadweep blitz to Maldives, trying to portray the racist and crude remarks from Maldivian ministers as having taken place either in a vacuum or in Chinese geopolitical space, or worse, under ISIS influence, had themselves drawn a connection, some in jingoistic tones – before the obnoxious comments were made.

This is how it panned out. On January 4, PM Modi posted breathtaking images of Lakshadweep, and there was a social media campaign to #BoycottMaldives by right-wing users hours later. Several media outlets, ostensibly taking cue from the social media response, soon began publishing articles and videos asking if these visuals were actually a response to a hostile Maldives. 

Meanwhile, derogatory remarks poured in from three Maldivian ministers – Mariyam Shiuna, Malsha Shareef and Mahzoom Majid – from January 5, two days before they were suspended by the Muizzu government, which called the remarks personal. Many Indians cancelled their vacations to Maldives amid an uproar, and New Delhi summoned the Maldivian high commissioner to register its protest on Monday. Muizzu’s government continues to face backlash from the tourism industry in Maldives, as well as prominent politicians. 

And what emerged subsequently was a cautionary tale of what hypernationalism can do to bilateral relations, especially in the India-Maldives episode where the latter has now reiterated that it sees India as a key ally – despite a warming up to China under the new government.

‘Did Modi checkmate a hostile Maldives?’

“Who would’ve thought… PM Modi never referred to the Maldives in his tweet so it is even more mystifying that these ministers of their realm in the Maldives basically turned blue in their face,” said Rahul Shivshankar, hands raised in question, on his show Hard Facts on CNN News18.

But just four days ago, the channel put up a video. “Did PM Modi just checkmate an increasingly hostile Maldives?” read the headline of the analytical video which referred to PM Modi’s Lakshadweep visit in the context of the strained relations with the Maldives.

Meanwhile, on Zee News, Ram Mohan Sharma, on his show Kasam Samvidhan Ki, tried to suggest on Monday on his show that Modi had only appealed to the public to visit Lakshadweep, which fuelled tourist interest in the Indian islands, and this triggered a “weird” reaction from “jealous” ministers from the Maldives. “Cheen ka kuch toh chakkar hai,” suggested the ticker, pointing to a China angle to the controversy.

But his channel’s coverage suggested something otherwise before.

Ek desh ko sabak sikhaane ke liye khud pradhanmantri Modi ne morcha sambhaal liya hai (PM Modi is managing a front to teach one country a lesson),” announced the voice-over on a Zee News segment about Modi’s Lakshadweep images being aimed at Maldives. “Maldives punished for treason, with an attack by Modi this time,” read the headline on YouTube.

An article on the Zee News website also suggested that PM Modi’s visit was “more than just a normal visit”. 

On India Today, meanwhile, Shiv Aroor tried to give some context the controversy on his show 5ive Live, pointing out that “all it took was a few right-wing tweets to push the Maldives Mantralaya into an ugly communal rage” since Mohammed Muizzu’s government was voted to power on an ‘India Out’ campaign. There was a rise in Maldivian citizens joining ISIS between 2014 and 2018, and “Chinese kerosene”, he noted, seemingly trying to establish the context for the controversy. 

Days before Aroor’s broadcast, an article on India Today by a staff writer pointed to a geopolitical advantage of PM’s Lakshadweep push. “The Prime Minister’s push for Lakshadweep as an island destination among travellers could also be seen as a counter to India's neighbour the Maldives – which is a popular beach destination among Indians,” it read.

On Times Now, senior editor Pranesh Kumar agreed on Monday when panelist Anand Ranganathan pointed out that PM Modi didn’t advertise Lakshadweep as an alternative to Maldives. But an article on the Times Now website three days before that show was headlined “PM Modi’s Lakshadweep tourism push may impact China-leaning Maldives; here’s how”.

WION and Navbharat Times also published videos asking if Lakshadweep could be an alternative to Maldives. The video by Navbharat Times was headlined “Why India Maldives ties are strained, Modi gives stern message”.

Similar pieces were published by Outlook, Russian broadcaster Sputnik India, and defence portal Strat News Global

Rhetoric without context

After the suspension of the three Maldivian ministers, rhetoric was pushed out, all guns blazing. Sushant Sinha on Times Now Navbharat’s News Ki Pathshala analysed the body language of the Maldivian high commissioner as he exited the Ministry of External Affairs within five minutes of his arrival. “Kaayde mein raho nahin toh faayde mein rahoge,” said the anchor, pointing to the evidence of India’s “rising stature” and “Modi’s charisma”.

While Sinha’s show and most of the television media’s coverage pointed to the ‘India Out’ campaign, the context for it was simplistic, without explanations. That campaign merely stemmed from either a pro-China tilt or a communal agenda, it was implied.

The campaign against India is inimical to India’s interests in the region, but there are several aspects to what a section of the Maldivian population and political leadership sees as concerns about Indian “domination” in Maldives. These are linked to Maldives’ distinctive culture, negative perceptions about the small Indian military presence around the island nation, resentment over the government’s approach towards certain infrastructure projects, and more importantly, domestic power play. 

It isn’t the first time such expressions were at public display in the Maldives. In 2012, the spokesperson to then Maldivian President Mohamed Waheed had called the Indian high commissioner a “traitor” and an “enemy of Maldives”, in violation of diplomatic protocol, over the leasing of the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport to Indian infrastructure major GMR by the erstwhile government of Mohamed Nasheed. All sorts of concerns and conspiracy theories had been floated around over the airport and Nasheed’s role.

But the ‘India Out’ campaign means that those concerns have been weaponised into what could turn into a xenophobic movement against any Indian lodged in Maldives. Reportedly coined by prominent opposition leader Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, the term was first introduced into the political vocabulary of the island nation in 2021 when he came out of jail amid a money laundering case. Yameen had used it to hit out at the then government of MDP leader and then president Ibrahim Mohamed Solih.

Solih, after all, had an ‘India First’ policy – India has long been a protector of Maldivian interests, from helping the country tackle a coup in 1988 to investing in its infrastructure to providing humanitarian aid such as vaccines during Covid and relief during the 2004 tsunami. 

Solih’s predecessor Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, who has now again been jailed over corruption charges and whose family has founded more than 10 political parties across the country, had also helped foster stronger ties with China during his tenure. Ironically, it was his brother Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who ruled Maldives for about three decades without any significant concerns about the Indian presence in the country. 

Solih’s government had rejected the ‘India Out’ campaign, and expressed concern at attempts to spread “misguided and unsubstantiated information to propagate hatred towards India”.

In the 2018 polls, Yameen had sought re-election after a controversial term which saw the jailing of several opposition faces, including his brother Maumoon and his son Faris. But Solih won the election and Yameen was jailed for money laundering. 

The ‘India Out’ campaign was launched in 2021 to oppose the UTF harbour development deal which was seen by some as a way to allow Indian troops on Maldivian soil. India was trying to assist Maldives to set up the Maldives National Defence Force Coast Guard Harbour at Uthuru Thira Falhu. Maldivian officials had called it an opportunity to protect the country’s maritime interests and sovereignty, but the Yameen-led opposition saw political dividends. 

Since he was disqualified from contesting the elections, Yameen threw his weight behind Muizzu, who was the Male mayor and won with a 54 percent majority in the elections last year. And the ‘India Out’ campaign was deployed as a tool to oust the government of Solih.

But though Muizzu won the election on the ‘India Out’ campaign, it will be impossible for him to completely disregard Indian concerns, or his own industry, as the recent controversy shows. Parties in Maldives understand the significance of island states in the Indo-Pacific theatre and the role of powerful neighbours such as India and China.

In December last year, on the sidelines of the COP28 climate summit in Dubai, Muizzu had said that New Delhi had agreed to withdraw its soldiers from the Maldives, who were in the country to operate and manage two helicopters and a Dornier aircraft given to the Maldives by India. But this wasn’t finalised, and according to some reports, a core group was reportedly set up to work on the withdrawal of troops. 

Maldives isn’t the only country with Indian military presence – some argue that a small military presence in a country so close to India isn’t even of much strategic value. 

Apart from peacekeeping missions, India has a minimal army, naval, or airforce presence in a few other countries around the world, including in Tajikistan, Oman, Mauritius, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Seychelles, and Singapore, ranging from bases to listening posts, assisting in logistical or training operations.

Maldives is a key maritime neighbour for India in the Indian Ocean Region, with an important place in the Modi government’s Neighbourhood First policy. Its geographical proximity, as well as its significance for commercial sea routes, makes it strategically important. China realises it, and continues to invest in the region and back politicians of all hues. 

But Indian support is crucial too for the island nation – Delhi has committed over $1.4 billion towards the island nation’s “socio-economic development needs”, lobbied extensively to help the Maldives clinch presidency at the United Nations General Assembly, and Indian tourists contribute a significant portion of Maldives revenue.

Any party in power in the Maldives can’t lose sight of the glaring reality that India’s proximity and strengths make it an irreplaceable ally, be it for development or infrastructure support.

Considering this backdrop, Muizzu – as he faces a tough election year, and even as his party colleagues continue to engage in rhetoric against India – will have to walk a tightrope between Indian ties and Chinese engagement.

Environment vs tourism

Meanwhile, as TV screens were fixated on Modi’s Lakshadweep masterstroke, most forgot to raise the more critical questions. 

Can Lakshadweep handle a sudden burst of tourist influx? And what would that mean for its environment and ecology?

Rahul Kanwal’s show on India Today was among the few in which the anchor bothered to ask if the Lakshadweep islands could suffer the environmental impact of any tourism infrastructure push amid renewed interest. 

The others, for example this ground report from Zee News, just focussed on the “biggest injury to China’s friend” that an infrastructure push in Lakshadweep would bring. 

Well, they did make waves after all.

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