Maldives defends ties with India

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Govt. says critics can’t ‘stomach’ the strengthening ties between the two sides.

Apparently responding to the growing anti-India refrain from the political opposition in the Maldives, Foreign Minister Abdulla has said that those “unable to stomach” the strengthening bilateral ties were resorting to such criticism.

Speaking at an event to launch a street-lighting project supported by India, the Foreign Minister said: “This connection is with the people of the two countries. A connection indicating a heart-to-heart relationship. We acknowledge that.”

Also read | India welcomes U.S.-Maldives defence agreement

His remarks come at a time when the jailed former President Abdulla Yameen-led Progressive Party of Maldives-People’s National Congress (PPM-PNC) combine has been protesting “foreign military presence in Maldivian soil”.

Following a recent agitation by a group of youth, the PPM-PNC said it was “appalled by Police crackdown and indiscriminate mass arrests at peaceful motorbike rally”.

Amid speculation among sections that Indian military might arrive at Hanimaadhoo in Haa Dhaalu Atoll, in addition to the Indian officers that are already in Maldives to operate the helicopters gifted to Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) by the Indian military, the Chief of Defence Force Major General Abdulla Shamaal has asserted that “no foreign armed forces” are present in the Maldives.

In the last few weeks, some Maldivians also took to Twitter, beginning an “#Indiaout” campaign that trended for some time.

Also read | India announces $500 mn package for Maldives

Given that during President Yameen’s time in office, Malé-New Delhi relations turned rather sour, while his government was accused of an evident China slant, ruling party sources accuse the political opposition for triggering the social media campaign.

China has been a close development partner and lender. Malé has been trying to renegotiate some $1.4 billion it owes to Beijing.

On the other hand, India’s engagement has significantly grown since President Solih came to power, particularly in development partnerships.

Last month, India announced a $500 million package — including a grant of $100 million — in addition to New Delhi’s earlier line of credit of $800 million announced in 2018.

However, countering the recent anti-India rhetoric, largely from its political rivals, is only one of the many challenges facing President Solih’s government.

Economic impact

Two years into office, the Solih administration has a massive challenge in the economic impact of Covid-19 that has brutally hit the Indian Ocean island nation’s high-revenue tourism sector.

Also read | Maldives can’t grow without India: Nasheed

India has announced $250 million special financial assistance to help the Maldives as it tries to cope with the economic strain gravely aggravated by the pandemic. According to the UNDP, the Maldives is amongst the worst affected countries in Asia region and potentially globally, due to the impact of Covid-19.

In its latest outlook the Asian Development Bank has also observed that output in Maldives is expected to shrink by a fifth in 2020, the sharpest GDP forecast revision in the sub region, then grow by 10.5% in 2021.”

Despite possible travel bubbles, including with India, opening up the country may not be easy for the Solih government, as Coronavirus cases continue to rise. Over 9,000 cases and 33 deaths have been reported so far.

Tensions within

Meanwhile, some in government fear the simmering tensions within the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) – apparently between President Solih and Speaker and former President Nasheed may pose yet another serious challenge, especially after Mr. Nasheed sought the removal of certain Ministers — accusing them of corruption.

“The Speaker has also been pushing for a parliamentary system. There is concern within the government that his moves might undermine the President, who is trying to work with the coalition partners,” according to a government legislator, who spoke to The Hindu from Malé, requesting anonymity.

“Be it on the economy, or on democracy, our government hasn’t been able to deliver much yet and the pandemic has made it worse. At such a time, the tensions within may prove damaging,” added the MP.

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