When it comes to neighbourhood diplomacy, there is no easy day for India. All of India's neighbours are hemmed in between the two Asian heavyweights, India and China, their leaning towards one country depending largely on the dispensation in power.
With Ibrahim Solih coming to power in the Maldives in 2018, India heaved a sigh of relief. His predecessor Abdulla Yameen was vociferously pro-China and anti-India. Over the last three years, India has re-established its presence in the tiny archipelago, whose strategic location in the Indian Ocean is its biggest claim to importance.
However, by 2020, rumblings of ‘India Out’ began emerging in the country, coinciding with Yameen's acquittal by the courts in a money laundering case. The noise is drumming up, on ground as well as on social media. Some weeks ago, there was even a protest against the presence of Indian military in the country, forcing defence minister Mariya Didi to say that the Indian troops present were unarmed and posed no threat to the sovereignty of the country. Most of these military personnel against whom the protests began are involved in the maintenance and repair of the Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopters that India had given the Maldives around a decade ago. Yameen had tried to return the gift during his regime, but India prevailed.
The anti-India noises are politically motivated. Several political parties, specially Solih's coalition partners, have come out with statements to condemn the ‘India Out’ campaign. However, rumblings at the grassroots cannot be ignored, specially by India.
As a former ambassador Anil Trigunayat said, India's trump card in the neighbourhood is its grassroot connect, the only area where it has an advantage over China's deep pockets. China, he said, does not have to engage at the grassroots, India does. The cultural connections with India are deep rooted. “We've seen how in the case of Nepal, when the distrust came at the people's level, the relations soured. So, India should not take any grassroot discontent, however small it seems, lightly,” he said.
He noted, however, that most of the neighbourhood countries have learnt to leverage their positions vis a vis both the Asian bigs. “A lot of the loans that China gave Sri Lanka and the Maldives are now payable. Both countries are in economic distress and naturally, want a deferring of the loans,'' he said, noting that such see sawing geopolitical games would be part of the neighbourhood future.
India is at present enjoying a good position in the Maldives—the country has an India First policy. However, these policies can be turned upside down with a change in government, and India is aware of its treacherous footing in all these countries. The Maldives is in debt to China. The country-to-country loan was $1.5 billion when Solih’s government took over, another $2 billion was loans by the private sector.
India has pumped in big money into the Maldives over the last three years, with a total loan of around $1.3 billion, for a variety of projects like housing, the Greater Male connectivity project (supposed to be the country's largest infrastructure project), water and sewerage works.
An India First approach, however, does not mean a No China approach. These countries are pragmatic enough, the Maldives follows a ‘Friendship to all countries' policy. Solih has said his government welcomes Chinese investment in small projects. The pandemic has devastated the country's main source of income—tourism. The economic distress is a good opportunity for China to work its chequebook diplomacy. Yi, in a visit to the archipelago earthier this month signed several deals, including a $63 million loan for social and infrastructural development.
The ‘India Out’ movement is something China could take advantage of. “We know these rumblings are part of the game. But we certainly cannot ignore them, they could become bigger issues later,'' Trigunayat said.