This article is part of the World Economic Forum's Geostrategy platform

Maldivian President Yameen Abdullah Gayoom’s rejection of the Supreme Court’s decision to release the jailed opposition leaders to ensure a free and fair presidential elections later this year has brought to head the country’s brewing estrangement with its traditional ally, India. India faces a problem: how to deal with the situation in Maldives?

During an election rally in August 2017, Yameen Abdul Gayoom, the President of Maldives, admitted that he was a recipient of the slush funds that were obtained by his deputy and former Vice President Ahmed Adhib.

In any other democratic society, President Yameen’s admission (which his party would later say had been misinterpreted) would have been made before a court of law; but not in Maldives or its tiny five-square-kilometre capital, Male.

Yameen’s alleged corruption and his attempts to firewall himself from scrutiny is the reason why the strategically important nation has recently been in turmoil. The Supreme Court had attempted to pave the way for a free and fair election, instead of a “Mugabe-type democracy”, when it gave the judgment to release nine incarcerated politicians and dozens of MPs. Former President Mohamed Nasheed, who is in exile, was to benefit from this order.

However, Yameen declared an emergency, arrested the Supreme Court judges, and forced the judges to reverse the ruling. It was a clear show of contempt, not only of the country’s judiciary, but of the international community that has been concerned about Yameen’s activities. Yameen’s intransigence is perhaps rooted in an awareness that if he fails to manage elections and the courts, he could end up in jail and his ill-gotten wealth could be confiscated.

President Yameen has become emboldened by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Male in 2014, and by the investments that are being made in the country by Chinese and Saudi Arabian companies. He has antagonised old-time ally, India, which came to the country’s aid during the devastating tsunami in 2004, and the terror raid by Sri Lankan Tamil militants. Earlier, President Yameen had also broken the Maldives’ bond with the Commonwealth and had shown indifference towards western powers.

Turmoil in paradise

At a press conference in Colombo this January, exiled ex-President Nasheed called attention to the land-grabbing ways of the Chinese and said, “A large emerging power is busy buying up the Maldives, buying up our islands, buying up our key infrastructure, and effectively, buying up our sovereignty.” In addition to the land-grabbing allegations, he also said, “The Maldives is threatened by a religious extremist takeover. It is again not an exaggeration to say that there is now a parallel state in the Maldives. A state within the state. A network of religious radicals that have infiltrated strategic institutions, the government and street gangs.”

Nasheed also said that President Yameen was trying to deny the opposition parties the opportunity to contest the August 2018 polls as their leaders were either in jail or in exile.

A supporter of former Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed shouts slogans during a protest against the current president of the Maldives Abdulla Yameen, demanding the release of opposition political prisoners in front of the Maldives embassy in Colombo, Sri Lanka March 6, 2018. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC130F0BC5C0
Supporters of former president Mohamed Nasheed demand the release of opposition political prisoners in front of the Maldives embassy in Colombo, Sri Lanka. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

On 28 January, the joint Opposition filed a petition in the Supreme Court demanding that President Yameen be asked to temporarily step down for “unprecedented corruption, including unjust enrichment from appropriation of state properties and funds for personal benefit, for the benefit of his family and political associates.” They requested the court to intervene, saying the parliament had become dysfunctional, as so many MPs had been jailed on some pretext or the other.

In early February, the Supreme Court (SC) announced that all incarcerated political leaders, including in-exile President Nasheed should be released after due process. Yameen, who had given the impression that he was in control of the Supreme Court did not expect such an order, particularly because the CJI had been arrested under Nasheed’s rule. Yameen did not follow the court’s order, and sacked the police chief who tried to. Two MPs were arrested as protesters stormed into Male’s Independence Square.

India’s role

India, which normally avoids commenting on the internal affairs of any friendly government, uncharacteristically supported the SC ruling. So did the United Nations, and countries such as the United States and UK. Their support for the court’s decision was perceived by Yameen as a conspiracy to impeach him — a charge echoed by his Attorney General.

Yameen promised early elections, but did not give any indication that he would abide by the SC directive. Judges complained of threats, and for reasons of personal safety decided to sleep inside the court premises. Aware that he was losing control of the situation, Yameen eventually imposed an internal emergency for 15 days. After arresting the Chief Justice, he promised in a televised address to find out why the Chief Justice and the other judges ordered the freedom of only the nine people and not the rest. Later, government alleged that they had proof that millions of dollars exchanged hands to pass the order to release the opposition leaders.

There is now a demand that India should intervene and restore democracy in the Maldives.

India, however, is treading carefully in a country that is strategically important in preserving freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean. China, which has been raising the stakes in the engagement since 2011, has invested massive funds in the construction of the Maldives’ airport, a bridge from Male to Hulhumalé airport — to give meaning to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It is a challenge that India has been viewing with discomfort.

In the streets of Male, there is a recognition that India is an important neighbour and Yameen has been unfair to New Delhi. A tourist guide took this author to the memorial that stands to remind the people of the Maldives of “Operation Cactus,” where Indian special forces ousted Tamil militants in the late ‘80s. The guide said, “How can we forget what the Indians have done for us?” According to him, Indians came to the rescue of the island nation during the Tsunami and also when in 2014 the Maldives ran out of drinking water due to a fire in its desalination plant. This view is endorsed by top politicians, too, who are convinced that Yameen has deliberately antagonised New Delhi so that he is not made accountable for his corruption.

Why cannot India cannot stem this drift? There are many reasons, as the same Western diplomat explained to this author, besides the fact that the Indian investment in the Maldives is limited and not driven by a strategic vision. The Tatas, for instance, have two resort islands, but have not done enough to build their influence in Male. There is a strong case for Indian businesses to get into tourism and other infrastructure activities to counter what China is doing.

There are, though, 23,000 Indians who work in Male and other islands — mostly in the tourism industry. These workers have come from all parts of the country and are generally comfortable with the working conditions in the hotels. They all aspire to work in exclusive private resorts where salaries and gratuity are much higher. The hospitality industry, though, is threatened by the rise of radical Islam. Earlier this year, the law enforcement authorities raided a resort owned by a former presidential candidate, Qasim Ibrahim, and seized liquor bottles.

The rise of radical Islam

The extent of radicalisation in the Maldivian society can be gauged by the fact that more than 250 Maldivians have fought for the Islamic State in Syria. This is a big number, considering that the population of Male is barely 250,000.

Oldtimers say that the Wahhabi influence in Maldives has grown since 2001. Before that, Maldives practised a more liberal version of Islam that, for example, did not compel women to wear hijab and men, long beards.

Yameen is also using Islamic radicalisation to distance Maldives from India and move closer to Saudi Arabia. A newspaper close to Yameen, Vaguthu, called Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi “anti-Muslim” and “not a friend of Maldives”. The article was criticised by the joint opposition and eventually withdrawn. The article also resurrected a demand in India and its allies that India should do something about Yameen and his “arrogance”. There was a view that India should manage its own backyard rather than expect the US or UK to intervene.

The Modi government ... has found to its discomfort that countries of South Asia are not heeding its warning against accepting large loans that may compromise their sovereignty.

An Indian solution?

After the botched intervention in Sri Lanka against the Tamil Tigers, New Delhi is not particularly comfortable with the idea of committing troops to align smaller countries to its foreign policy objectives. In fact, managing the neighbourhood has become the biggest challenge for the Modi government. It has found to its discomfort that countries of South Asia are not heeding its warning against accepting large loans that may compromise their sovereignty.

It has happened in Sri Lanka, where the Hambantota port was virtually gifted to China under a 99-year lease after the country defaulted on its debt payments. In Pakistan, the involvement of China may be more nuanced, as it plays a stronger hand by leveraging grievances against the Indian State and enlarging its political and economic footprint. China has been convincing India’s neighbours to sign up on the BRI without carefully considering its consequences.

What can India do in the Maldives to prevent its slide towards Chinese control and radical Islam?

Nasheed has been beseeching India to send its envoy backed by its army to rescue the imprisoned judges and save Maldives’ democracy. It is a tricky path for India as it could set wrong precedents and raise flawed expectations. India now has to carefully read the way different actors, including Pakistan, react to China’s enlargement, and aggressively assert Maldivian independence.

The South Asian neighbourhood values Indian cultural influence, and cannot visualise a situation where they get unhinged from it. That is what India’s strength is; it is a pillar of the country’s neighbourhood policy.

India’s dilemma in Maldives, ORF, Sanjay Kapoor