Mohamed Muizzu, the former Mayor of Malé and the President-elect, was sworn in as the eighth president of the Maldives on November 17, 2023. On the first day of his office, Muizzu formally requested the Indian Government withdraw its troops stationed in the Maldives, making headlines in both countries. However, he also mentioned that he will not allow China or any other nation to replace them. Muizzu's presidential bid largely focused on reducing Indian influence in Maldivian affairs.
In the September 2023 presidential election, Muizzu defeated the incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party in a second-round run-off. Muizzu ran as the candidate of the People's National Congress (PNC), an opposition party founded by Muizzo, and garnered the endorsement of former president Yameen's Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM).
Notably, PPM launched an India-out campaign in 2020 to challenge the bilateral relationship between India and the Maldives. After the 2018 election, President Solih adopted an ‘India first’ policy to restore ties with India while maintaining relations with China. During the tenure of Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom (2013–2018), the Maldives embraced China, witnessing a surge in Chinese investments and the implementation of numerous mega infrastructure projects in the island nation.
Indian military presence in the Maldives
India shares a maritime border with the Maldives and historically has maintained good relations with the archipelago. Until 1988, India's engagement with the Maldives was limited to socio-economic affairs only. The November 1988 Maldives coup d'état attempt against then-president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom exposed the small island nation's security weaknesses. Around 80 armed mercenaries from Sri Lanka's People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam stormed the presidential palace, with President Gayoom narrowly managing to escape to a safe house. From there, he requested military intervention from allies, and India swiftly responded.
Indian paratroopers launched a mission called Operation Cactus, flying non-stop over 2,000 kilometres (1,240 mi), and rescued President Gayoom. Within hours, the Indian paratroopers restored control of the capital to President Gayoom's government. Indian Navy frigates captured the freighter carrying the escaping mercenaries off the Sri Lankan coast. This incident strengthened the ties between the two nations.
Since 1988, defence and security have remained important areas of collaboration between India and the Maldives. Indian troops continued to help the Maldives during the 2004 Tsunami, the 2014 Malé drinking water crisis and the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic by delivering essential supplies to the island nation. Both countries signed a ‘Comprehensive Action Plan for Defence’ in April 2016 to consolidate their defence partnership, which was further strengthened in 2019.
India gifted the Maldives two helicopters in 2010 and 2013, and in 2020, it offered a Dornier 228 maritime surveillance aircraft for joint surveillance activities by India and the Maldives of the Indian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and rescue efforts. Indian newspapers reported that the aircraft's task is also to monitor the activities of Chinese vessels in regional waters.
A 2021 article by Maldivian news portal Avas, quoting the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF), reported that 75 Indian military personnel were in the Maldives to operate these three aircraft.
In a press conference after Muizzu took the presidential oath and requested India to withdraw troops from the Maldives, the Undersecretary for Public Policy of the Presidential Office, Mohamed Firuzul Abdul Khaleel, confirmed that there were 77 Indian military personnel still present in the Maldives. Firazul also said the new government would review over 100 agreements with India signed during the tenure of former President Solih.
Is India losing ground in the Maldives?
With these developments, some reports suggest that this is a “setback to India’s efforts to counter China’s influence” in the Maldives. In the past decade, Chinese investment has surged in the Island nation with many mega infrastructure projects, pushing it at risk of debt distress — a fate that has befallen some of the countries that became involved with China's Belt and Road Initiative, including Sri Lanka and Pakistan. India is trying to find “workable solutions” to convince the Maldives to allow them to continue using the helicopters and aircraft for security purposes. Muizzu and India's Union Minister of Earth Sciences, Kiren Rijiju, discussed this in a meeting on November 18, 2023.
Maldivian Journalist Ahmed Azaan tweeted:
President @MMuizzu government delivers on its promise: Indian military numbers revealed! Remember when secrecy was tied to food imports from India? 🇮🇳🍳🧅
Did India impose restrictions on essential supplies like eggs, onions, and potatoes to the Maldives? https://t.co/jumDybDXof
— Ahmed Azaan (@axanner) November 19, 2023
Meanwhile, tensions in India are running high — such as this tweet from retired Indian Air Vice Marshal Jaswant Singh Kumar:
India should firmly advise Maldives government regarding security issues for not only Maldives but also India. No Chinese intrusion acceptable We can’t afford to repeat what happened in Sri Lanka Nepal etc
— Jaswant Singh Kumar (@jaswantsk16) November 23, 2023
Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe asserted:
“Indian troops leaving was part of manifesto. India shouldn’t get too worried about it. Focus more on strengthening relationship with Maldives. The Maldives needs India’s help,” President Ranil Wickremesinghe asserted.https://t.co/ks4tJNyy1e
— BRISL (@BRI_SL) November 24, 2023
Academics Abhinav Mehrotra and Amit Upadhyay also weighed in, writing in Geopolitics magazine:
The increasing threat posed by evolving China-Maldives relations requires India to recalibrate its strategy towards its South Asian neighbours including the Maldives. [..]
Given the growing dependence of the Maldives on China, India needs to be cautious and rethink its foreign policy focusing on its economic and political relations with the Maldives given the significance of the region for India.