Sushma’s Maldives visit lends economic direction to political ties – South Asia Journal


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Image credit: Deccan Herald

N Sathiya Moorthy  29 March 2019 

External Affairs
Minister Sushma Swaraj’s two-day official visit to Maldives in mid-March has
given more meaning and purpose to the bilateral relations between the two
countries than already. Coming as it did after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s
participation at the Inauguration of President Ibrahim Mohammed ‘Ibu’ Solih in
November last, followed by the latter’s State visit to New Delhi, Sushma’s Male
visit sought to give specific direction to the economic commitments made

Modi was the only
Head of State or Government invited for Solih’s Inauguration. Like his
predecessors, the President also made New Delhi his first overseas
port-of-call. Earlier, India had made an unprecedented political commitment for
the restoration of democracy in Maldives, by condemning specific actions of
former President Abdulla Yameen, who is now in prison, facing a massive
money-laundering case.

The timing of
Sushma’s visit should underscore the importance both nations attach to
bilateral relations. Parliamentary elections are due in the two nations and
their leaders, especially on the Maldivian side, are tied down to campaign
work. Though not contesting the polls this time, Sushma had remained a vocal
campaigner for her ruling BJP-led NDA combine at the Centre.

Identifying projects

In the Male visit,
Sushma was accompanied by a high-power official delegation, including Foreign
Secretary Vijay Gokhale. The presence of the political and diplomatic mandarins
of the all-important External Affairs Ministry under-scored the importance
India attached to the visit. It also ensured continuity, providing medium and
long-term continuity, independent of political twists and turns, if any, on
either side.

With furtherance of economic cooperation as the basic theme of the visit,
the two sides signed an agreement for India’s Export-Import (Ex-IM) Bank
a $800-m
line-of-credit to finance infrastructure projects in 
Maldives, identified by the Solih administration.
This was part of the $ 1.4-b aid that India had promised during President
Solih’s New Delhi visit.

The completion of
initial paper-work on identifying the projects showed the seriousness with
which the two Governments have approached it. The list includes re-locating the
Male port to the industrial island of Thilafushi and creating water and
drainage infrastructure on 30 islands. As Maldivians officials explained,
detailed project reports on the water/drainage projects, for instance, were
submitted ahead of the signing ceremony, in which Sushma & team
participated. This went beyond the customary political commitment in such

air-connectivity between islands and atolls, especially between them and
capital Male, sea-connectivity remains a problem for most residents in many
islands. The size of individual island-population, often not more than a
handful of thousands and at times hundreds, has made infrastructure management
uneconomical and welcome. It is more so in the case of social infrastructure
like education, health-care and job-creation.

Maldivian plight

This in turn has
created a space-pressure on capital Male and less than a handful of urban
centres. Aptly, in Maldivian terminology, they are often called as ‘population
centres’. Male City houses a third of the nation’s 400,000 people. It is also
top on the list of South Asian capitals with the highest density of population.
This in turn is also attributed as among the chief causes of broken families,
highest divorce-rate in the region, nearly orphaned children — both boys and
girls — drug-menace and the formation of street-corner gangs. Global studies,
aid and assistance in this regard have not been persistent and consistent, with
the result the benefits too have remained inconsistent through the past years
and decades.

On a different
plane, there is also the larger Maldivian concerns about the long-term
consequences of climate-change, and the possibility of the nation’s islands
sinking under raising sea-levels one after the other. All of it requires more
scientific studies than already, with workable solutions at the local-level
identified and put in place before it became too late.

Given its vast expertise and experience in ocean and climate studies,
India as the larger neighbour can study Maldives’ plight for its own
benefit. India can also consider putting in place mechanisms, big and small, to
arrest first, and address later, the ill-effects of raising sea-levels on

Whether ‘Male
population’ issue or ‘climate-change’ concerns, they all have often become a
part of domestic politics in Maldives. This has also robbed them of the
continuous governmental and international efforts required to address them,
over the short, medium and long terms. An early-bird advantage that India now
has in Maldives could well lead to a sustained effort, whose benefits too could
start flowing early and remain continuous.

China’s presence & design

Early on during
President Solih’s New Delhi visit, the two sides clarified that the $ 1.4-b
Indian aid would not go towards Maldives reimbursing any part of the massive
China credit, incurred during the Yameen rule. If not directly and financially,
India would need to help Maldives on the political and diplomatic front, in
finding external resources to re-fund/re-finance China’s projects/credits in
the Indian Ocean archipelago.

During Sushma’s
visit, Maldivian officials reiterated that they were still digging into past
records, to identify the loan-component of Chinese credit to Yameen’s regime,
and also moneys that might have been diverted from Government projects during
the time. While domestic pressure on the Solih Government would be for
arraigning the guilty for such diversion, the Maldivian State still cannot
escape repay or re-schedule such payments to China.

The Maldives-China agreements on the credit front, including those for
the Male-Hulhumale sea-bridge to the airport-island, are not in the public
domain. Given, however, the Chinese proclivity to provide for land take-over of
the Hambantota deal with 
neighbouring Sri Lanka, a debt-equity swap is something that the world should
not be 
surprised, if
it came to that.

For now at least,
Sri Lanka has effectively scuttled possibilities of China anything more than a
business base in Sri Lanka, be it in Hambantota or in the ongoing Colombo Port
City project. Sri Lanka also has a relatively strong army and navy, the likes
of which Maldives cannot boast of in the foreseeable future. The nation lacks
resources for the purpose, starting with human resources, given the small size
of the population in relation to the vastness of the seas surrounding it.

Anti-India protest

For an Indian EAM,
Sushma may be the only one to have visited Male on more occasions than most.
That includes a stop-over at Male Airport once when Yameen was the President
and confabulating with then counterpart, Dunya Maumoon, at the airport. This
apart, as EAM, Sushma has also received at least three Foreign Ministers during
her five years in office, including Dr Mohamed Asim, Dunya Maumoon’s successor
under Yameen regime.

This time round, she
held talks with counterpart Abdulla Shahid, another Foreign Ministry veteran
who later became Parliament Speaker (2008-13), incumbent Speaker Gasim Ibrahim
and Home Minister Imran Abdulla. Sushma also called on President Solih and met
with his party chief and predecessor, Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed, who continues to
be the international face of Maldivian democracy.

Yet, this time round
when her visit was announced, a section of the Opposition led by Yameen’s
estranged Home Minister Umar Naseer called for an anti-India protest, days
before Sushma’s visit. With Yameen in prison, his PPM-PNC combine also
associated with the protest-call, demanding the ‘withdrawal of Indian military
personnel’ from Male. As is known, Indian Navy/Coast Guard personnel are aiding
and training Maldivian military personnel in the use of two helicopters donated
by New Delhi.

The helicopters-gift
ran into rough weather when the Yameen-India relations came under a strain.
However, India continued to retain them on the Maldivian soil despite repeated
Yameen Government’s call for taking them part. Post-poll in September last
year, successor Solih administration wanted the Indian helicopters and
personnel to stay back.

The planned protest
did not happen as the Male city authorities withdrew the permission for the
venue, which they said was being used for a purpose other than for which it was
obtained. Naseer, a failed presidential candidate from 2008 and aspirant for
Elections-2024, was, however, prompt in claiming that the
‘protest-cancellation’ showed that the Male Government was taking orders from


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