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Why Maldives’ Nasheed vs Solih is trouble. Delhi doesn’t want to rock the boat in Indian Ocean

Delhi knows China’s favourite politician in Maldives will benefit if the political chaos spreads. Keeping the Indian Ocean democratic is a priority.

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The sun, sand, surfing and snorkelling—the perfect picture of paradise synonymous with the Maldives has lately been marred by a fifth dimension—a scandal rocking the top levels of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party on the eve of Maldivian President Ibrahim Solih’s visit to India, which began this week.

But such is the trust between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Solih that India is not just ready to ignore all charges of collusion between Solih and former Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed, whose brother was allegedly involved in a sex scandal, but it is rolling out the red carpet for him both in Delhi and Mumbai.

Solih is seen as such a steady pair of hands that India has cast its vote in favour of him continuing to head the Maldivian Democratic Party coalition government. Presidential elections are on the anvil for September 2023 and all sides, especially New Delhi, are acutely aware that if the political chaos spreads then the only person to benefit from the mess will be Abdulla Yameen, China’s favourite politician in the Maldives.

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

New Delhi’s welcome

External Affairs minister S Jaishankar met Solih on Monday to set the tone for the visit. “Our Neighbourhood First and Maldives’ India First policies are complementary. They take our special relationship forward,” Jaishankar tweeted.

Several new Memoranda of Understanding are expected after Modi meets Solih Tuesday, and both sides will review the incredible amount of work done so far, especially on the infrastructure front—the Great Male Connectivity Project is a 6.74 km-long bridge and causeway link that connects Maldives capital to several neighbouring islands like Villingli, Gulhifalu and Thilafushi, being built by the Indian company Afcon using the $400 line of credit and a $100 million Indian grant.

Modi and Solih will review “strategic ties”, which is diplomatic jargon for how to keep the Indian Ocean safe from Chinese expansionism. Jaishankar handed over a coastal radar system to the Maldives during his visit in March that will allow both Delhi and Male to keep eyes on the several hundred islands and archipelagos that sit astride the Equator and the sea lanes free for navigation.

Only last week, the chief of the Maldivian defence forces Gen. Abdulla Shamaal visited India.

India’s spokesperson Arindam Bagchi invoked fulsome praise to describe the relationship. “(President Solih’s visit is) an opportunity to nurture the unwavering friendship between our two countries and lend further momentum to the multi-faceted partnership,” he said.

Also Read: Allowing US in Maldives to keep China out is a heavy price to pay. So why is India doing it?

Solih-Nasheed conflict

Behind the praise is a kernel of concern in Delhi that Solih’s presidency could be marred by the unhealthy rivalry between Solih and the current speaker of parliament Nasheed. The latest example of strife is the public scandal over the arrest of Nasheed’s younger brother, Ahmed Nazim, because he allegedly participated in sexual activities with a Bangladeshi man. Homosexuality is a criminal offence in the Islamic Republic of the Maldives.

The incident came to light when a video of Nazim’s sexual activity with the Bangladeshi man was leaked and he was picked up by the police—after which all hell broke loose.  Nasheed was furious at the turn of events. It is believed that he has now been making allegations of extra-marital sex against Solih in party WhatsApp groups.

The arrest of his brother has seriously upset Nasheed, who believes that Solih is appeasing the Islamists – the Adhaalath party, a conservative, pro-Islamist party, which is a member of Solih’s MDP-led coalition in power.

“President @ibusolih’s administration has arrested my brother selectively accusing him of homosexuality. Arrest was made against criminal procedures and is politically motivated to appease hardline extremists in coalition,” Nasheed had tweeted.

The problem is not just that Soli and Nasheed, fondly called “Anni” across the Maldivian islands, were once the best of friends across their childhood and youth and the time they spent as activists and members of the MDP, but that their falling out is having a terrible impact on the party.

Nasheed remains a hugely popular figure, more popular than anyone else in the MDP or, indeed, in any other party. But Solih has also demonstrated, in the last four years that he has been president, that in his own quiet and steady way, he can be counted on to deliver on promises the MDP made to the people. Promises that don’t make splashy headlines but are necessary, like sewerage pipes and freshwater connections.

Despite his incredible popularity, Nasheed has never been able to swing just over 50 per cent of the vote. The Maldivian constitution demands a run-off when in the first round no candidate gets just over 50 per cent of the vote. Nasheed often wins the highest numbers but has been unable to cross this line. This is why the MDP needs other parties to run a coalition.

Also Read: Maldives is a test case for India’s strategic economic quest, and for Trump’s Indo-Pacific idea

Keeping the boat steady in Maldives

Maldivian sources say Solih has managed to do exactly that extraordinarily well. That he is skilled in the art of negotiating with the Opposition. Protests against India’s Yoga day were a final straw and Solih, who doesn’t like confrontation, took a firm line by banning the “India Out” campaign in the Maldives.

For the moment, it seems as if Solih’s faction of the MDP has had quite enough of Nasheed’s accusations—there are reports that Solih loyalists are readying 22 members of the Majlis, the parliament, needed to submit a vote of no-confidence against Speaker Nasheed.

It may or may not come to that. Solih’s friends, including India, will likely be offering caution. No one wants to rock the boat too much in the Maldives. This nation of 4,00,000 people fought hard to return the nation to the liberal and democratic MDP in 2018. The electoral upset against the China-backed Yameen sent a ripple of excitement across the Indian Ocean.

India is certainly in favour of keeping the Indian Ocean democratic in flavour. It will certainly hope that Nasheed, a guest of New Delhi during the government-backed Raisina Dialogue thinktank event in April, will look at the situation with a degree of calm, ignore his personal differences with Solih and look at the larger picture—that of keeping the MDP in power in the Maldives and President Ibrahim Solih at its helm.

Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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