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Churning in Maldives raises Delhi’s stakes in Indian Ocean. Why Modi should rule the waves

Modi government's troubled vaccine policy has meant that India is short of a diplomatic route that could have helped strengthen ties with Maldives and keep China out.

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Maldivian speaker Mohamed Nasheed celebrated his 54th birthday Monday recuperating in a military hospital in Berlin, Germany, days after surviving a bomb attack back home in Male and undergoing several critical, life-saving surgeries.

Forensic teams from several countries around the world, including India, have since flown in trying to get to the bottom of the story. Three people have been picked up and are being investigated. A remote-controlled improvised explosive device (IED), which had been strapped to the side of a motorcycle, was detonated when Nasheed stepped out of his house on 6 May at 8:27 pm. The parliamentary committee on national security services has begun an inquiry.

Certainly, the Indian Ocean is astir again. As if the first major bomb blast since 2007, in which 12 tourists were injured, has not been enough to roil the waves, this tiny South Asian nation of 5 lakh people is staggering under a 60 per cent Covid positivity rate. In absolute terms, 101 people have died so far, but because the population is scattered across scores of islands and atolls, the government is seriously apprehensive about the outbreak.

It now seems that the Maldives desperately requires 100,000 vaccine doses that it ordered from the Serum Institute of India (SII), but cannot get them because all exports have been shut down in view of the alarming Covid situation in India.

Bangladesh and Nepal are in the same soup. With cases rising rapidly, India’s neighbours are beginning to look further east — at China — to fulfil their Covid vaccination promises to their people.

Also read: India’s vaccine diplomacy is falling apart. Why PM Modi can’t convince EU to waive patents

Time to build on the foundation

There are two reasons why Maldives is in a category of its own. The first is that when the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) dramatically overthrew Abdulla Yameen’s government in 2018, India’s applause was among the loudest. It bears recalling, for just a moment, the situation that prevailed at the time – the MDP leadership was largely in exile, mostly in Colombo and the UK, and Yameen had allowed China a free run in the Maldives.

The return of the MDP to power, with Ibrahim Solih as President and Nasheed as Speaker, both of whom invested heavily in the relationship with India, has proved to be a model for India’s relationships with the rest of South Asia.

India reciprocated the warmth in full measure. In the last couple of years, New Delhi has spent at least $2 billion bringing significant development to far-flung islands – including better roads, a reclamation project in the southernmost island Addu, water and sanitation project in 34 islands as well as the Greater Male connectivity project across four islands.

Will making an exception for the Maldives by sending over a mere 100,000 vaccine doses hurt India? Certainly, the Congress-led Opposition is targeting the Narendra Modi government for messing up its vaccine strategy by disbursing vaccine doses abroad without first securing the needs of Indians at home – it bears to reason that External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar is on the mat. (Of course, Jaishankar may alleviate some of that criticism when the US sends a part of its unused AstraZeneca doses to India and other countries.)

Also read: Western press critical of Modi, so why is G-7 inviting him to UK summit?

Look out for the challenges

India’s stakes are high in the Indian Ocean. China is encircling the waters, giving 600,000 Covid vaccine doses to Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa government and in March voting against the UN Human Rights Council resolution, which sought to censure Colombo’s human rights record – India abstained.

Speculation is also rife that all is not well inside the MDP in the Maldives, that Nasheed is chafing at his limited role as Speaker and is eager to transform the presidential system of the Maldives into a parliamentary one, where he takes on the key leadership role. According to The Times of Addu, Nasheed has even sent a letter to President Solih in this regard. One fallout of the inner-party crisis is that the MDP recently lost local polls in Male.

Tackling high-stakes conflict is easier said than done, but it is a measure of India’s enhanced responsibilities if it wants to be a regional player — to not just stave off China’s expanding influence in the Indian Ocean, but keep a close watch on the situation within Indian Ocean nations such as the Maldives.

For the time being, Nasheed is severely injured and under treatment at a Berlin hospital; the rest of the Maldives is waiting for the investigation into the bomb blast to be completed. No terror group has claimed the attack, but investigators are hinting at domestic religious extremists. Perhaps a local with a grudge has put a bounty on Nasheed’s head.

The bomb blast has driven home the realisation that Nasheed remains a target; perhaps someone wants to curb his larger-than-life character. It also underscores the point that if India wants a special relationship with the Indian Ocean, it needs to remain engaged more than ever with island nations like the Maldives.

The author is a consulting editor. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant Dixit)

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