New Delhi: Mohamed Muizzu might well have won the Maldivian presidential election on the plank of an ‘India Out’ – later ‘Indian Military Out’ – campaign, but the fact of the matter is that the number of Indian security personnel present in the Indian Ocean archipelago nation is less than 100! It is around 70 actually.
That the ‘India Out’ campaign is empty rhetoric is borne by the fact that President-elect Muizzu’s spokesperson Mohamed Firzul Abdullah Khaleel admitted that the exact number of Indian military personnel in the Maldives is unknown. “We have not yet received the most complete information on the total number,” Firzul said in a press conference earlier this week.
Pro-China Muizzu defeated incumbent Ibrahim Solih, who is known for his ‘India First’ policy, in this year’s presidential election in the Maldives. Muizzu, who is currently serving as the Mayor of the Maldives’ capital Male, was the joint candidate of the People’s National Congress (PNC) and the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM). Initially, former President Abdulla Yameen of the PPM, known for his pro-China stance, was nominated as the joint candidate of the PNC and the PPM. But since Yameen is serving an 11-year jail term due to a money laundering case, he became ineligible to contest the election. As a result, Muizzu of the PNC was nominated as the joint PNC-PPM candidate.
As part of New Delhi’s Neighbourhood First Policy, the Maldives is strategically significant to India because of its location in the Indian Ocean. India and the Maldives share ethnic, linguistic, cultural, religious and commercial links steeped in antiquity and enjoy close, cordial and multi-dimensional relations. However, regime instability in the Maldives since 2008 has posed significant challenges to the India-Maldives relationship, particularly in the political and strategic spheres.
Ties between India and the Maldives deteriorated significantly when Yameen served as the President between 2013 and 2018. It was only after Solih came to power in 2018 that ties between New Delhi and Male improved.
Although India continues to be an important partner of the Maldives, New Delhi cannot afford to be complacent over its position and must remain attentive to the developments in the Maldives. India must play a key role within the Indo-Pacific security space to ensure regional security in South Asia and surrounding maritime boundaries. China’s strategic footprint in India’s neighbourhood has increased. The Maldives has emerged as an important ‘pearl’ in China’s “String of Pearls” construct in South Asia.
Both Yameen’s PPM and the PNC had fuelled an ‘India Out’ campaign ahead of this year’s presidential election. The ‘India Out’ campaign was aimed at sparking hatred by creating scepticism about India's investments in the Maldives, the defence partnerships between the two sides, and India’s net security provisions. The campaign had support from a limited population. However, President Solih, through a decree issued in April 2022, banned the ‘India Out’ campaign citing it as a “threat to national security”. On his part, Solih had campaigned with the slogan of ‘India First’.
After the ‘India Out’ campaign was banned, Muizzu replaced it with the ‘Indian Military Out’ campaign. Following his election, Muizzu said that he is in talks with New Delhi to remove Indian military personnel present in the Maldives. Now, following his spokesperson’s admission that the exact number of Indian military personnel is not confirmed, what ETV Bharat has come to know is that the figure is less than 100.
“There are around 70 Indian military personnel present in the Maldives,” Smruti Pattanaik, Research Fellow in the Manohar Parrikar Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) who specializes in South Asia, told ETV Bharat. “India’s role in the Maldives is capacity building.”
Pattanaik pointed out that the Maldives is also a party to the Colombo Security Conclave (CSC). The CSC was formed in 2011 as a trilateral maritime security grouping of India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. It is being seen as India’s outreach to the Indian Ocean to underline regional co-operation and shared security objectives. The CSC hopes to restrict China’s influence in an area of strategic importance and to reduce the Chinese footprint in the member countries.
During a media briefing last month, Arindam Bagchi, spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs, said that India’s cooperation with the Maldives is based on jointly addressing shared challenges and priorities.
“The assistance and platforms that we have provided have contributed significantly in areas like people's welfare, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and combating illegal maritime activities,” Bagchi said. “Over the last five years, more than 500 medical evacuations have been carried out by our personnel, saving 523 Maldivian lives. Of these, 131 evacuations were carried out this year, another 140 last year, and a further 109 in 2021. Similarly, during the last five years, more than 450 multifaceted missions have been carried out to safeguard the maritime security of Maldives. Of these, 122 missions were carried out last year, while the 152 and 124 missions were undertaken in 2021 and 2020 respectively. India has also been the first responder for Maldives in any disaster scenario, including most recently during COVID.”
As of now, there are two Indian Dhruv advanced light helicopters operating in Male. New Delhi has also given a Dornier aircraft to the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) on condition that while it will operate under the command and control of the MNDF, its running cost will be borne by India. According to Abhinav Pandya, founder and CEO of theUsanas Foundation think tank, China wants to control the sea routes through the Maldives.
“China is trying to establish naval superiority in the Indian Ocean region,” Pandya said. “This is part of Beijing’s global dominance agenda.” Anand Kumar, Associate Fellow in the MP-IDSA and author of a book on the Maldives, said that of the 1,200 islands in the Indian Ocean archipelago nation, 200 are populated. “India, as part of its capacity building process, needs to have its personnel in various places for medevs (medical evacuations),” Kumar said.
As for the ‘India Out’ campaign, Kumar put it succinctly: “This kind of misleading helps in elections.” Meanwhile, the Maldives has extended invitations to neighbouring nations and international organisations for the presidential inauguration ceremony to be held on November 17. It has been left to the countries concerned to decide who to send to attend the ceremony.