Relations between India and the Maldives, which were shaky when the pro-China Mohamed Muizzu defeated the pro-India Ibrahim Solih in the October 2023 Maldivian Presidential election, are now teetering at the edge of a total breakdown.

There is great hype in India over the uncharitable remarks made by three Maldivian Junior Ministers about Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Seen in the context of Muizzu’s unmistakable tilt towards Beijing, nationalist sentiment in India will not allow the government to take a soft line and let the Maldives brush the issue under the carpet. This is especially so since the issue is seen in the light of Muizzu’s growing bonhomie with China.

India’s anxieties about the direction being taken by the Muizzu regime have been building up since the latter part of 2023. India watched helplessly when, soon after assuming office in November 2023, President Muizzu sought the withdrawal of the 75 Indian military personnel stationed in the Maldives.

He also announced a review of a hundred bilateral agreements signed by the previous pro-Indian government; and unilaterally cancelled an agreement on hydrographic surveys.

Giving up the tradition of visiting India first before visiting other countries, Muizzu chose to open his innings with a visit to Turkiye which is at odds with India. And without making an attempt to visit Delhi thereafter, he headed for Beijing, giving proof of his anti-India and pro-China bias.

As India was mulling its options, remarks on the social media platform “X” by three junior ministers in the Muizzu government, that were extremely hurtful to Prime Minister Modi, pulled India into a confrontation with the Maldives.

One of the three Ministers, Mariyam Shiuna, had dubbed Modi as a puppet of Israel. The ‘BBC’ reported that the Ministers compared India to cow dung.

They also linked Modi’s call to develop Lakshadweep as a tourist attraction as a bid to challenge the Maldives’ dominant place in the Indian Ocean tourism map. But Modi had made no mention of Maldives in his remarks on his brief visit to the Lakshadweep.

The reaction in India to the Ministers’ fulminations was predictably severe with social media warriors calling for a boycott of the Maldives by Indian tourists. An Indian boycott would hurt that country badly.

With over 200, 000 visiting the Maldives per year, Indians are the single largest group among tourists coming to the Indian Ocean archipelago. Bollywood stars act as informal brand ambassadors of the Maldives keeping the industry buoyant.

‘The Hindu’ reported that the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of EaseMyTrip, Nishant Pitti, had announced the suspension of all Maldives flight bookings following the derogatory remarks. Pitti took to social media X, to say: "In solidarity with our nation, @EaseMyTrip has suspended all Maldives flight bookings.”

Online travel solutions provider EaseMyTrip has also begun a “Visit Lakshadweep” campaign saying that the "Water & beaches of Lakshadweep are as good as Maldives/Seychelles. We at @EaseMyTrip will come up with crazy special-offers to promote this pristine destination that our PM @narendramodi has recently visited!”

In the midst of an escalating row between India and the Maldives, hashtag #BoycottMaldives gained traction on social media as Indian tourists started cancelling their scheduled vacations to the island nation, ‘The Hindu’ reported.

The Indian Association of Tour Operators predicted that the call for a boycott would become apparent within the next 20-25 days. Tour operators were quoted as saying that statements such as those by the Maldivian politicians would prevent people from choosing a particular nation for a trip.

Sensing danger, the Maldivian government officially distanced itself from the Ministers’ remarks, condemned them and also “suspended” the Ministers.

But it is clear that India has not considered “suspension” adequate and summoned the Maldivian High Commissioner Ibrahim Shaheeb to register its protest. The Maldivian government then summoned the Indian High Commissioner Munu Mahawar to “explain” its stand. But according to ‘The Hindu’ the Indian envoy described the meeting as a prearranged one to discuss bilateral issues.

India is now waiting for the Maldives to take the next step to assuage its feelings. For its part, the Maldivian tourism sector has collectively castigated the Ministers and stressed the role of Indian tourists in sustaining Maldivian tourism.

Several leading Maldivian personalities like former Presidents Mohamed Nasheed and Ibrahim Solih and former Foreign Minister Abdulla Shaheed, have roundly condemned the thoughtless remarks about Modi and India.

But the government in Male has not taken any further steps. Perhaps it is waiting for President Muizzu to come back from China at the end of the week.

New Delhi would like to know how Male plans to address this and other issues relating to India and China. It would be especially curious about the outcome of Muizzu’s on-going China visit and what impact it would have on India’s position in the Maldives.

India has pumped in billions of dollars in infrastructure projects and given the Maldivian government budget support.

Muizzu is to sign a number of agreements while he is in Beijing till Friday. These pacts may give China primacy in the economic development programmes of the Maldives, and put in question the fate of Indian-aided projects.

India’s position in the Maldives is now precarious. India has said that there is a “core committee” to go into Muizzu’s demands such as the demand for the removal of Indian troops, review of a hundred bilateral agreements and the non-renewal of the hydrography agreement. But the Muizzu government has been silent on the committee.

India is also worried about the security implications of the growing bonhomie between Muizzu and the Chinese leadership. India is deeply concerned about Chinese “research vessels” prowling in the Indian Ocean collecting sensitive data on ocean currents and the ocean floor but not sharing the data with partner countries in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

At least one Sri Lankan research collaborator has complained about the opaqueness of projects with Chinese institutions.

India had asked Sri Lanka and the Maldives not to entertain the visit of Chinese research vessels as they could jeopardise India’s security. While Sri Lanka has imposed a one-year moratorium on such visits by ships of all countries, ostensibly to allow it to work out a generally applicable protocol, the Maldives is still to respond to India’s demand.

Facing parliamentary elections a few months down the line, “strong man” Modi cannot be seen as bending to tiny Maldives on these issues.

Meanwhile, in a commentary on the eve of President Muizzu’s visit to China, the semi-official Global Times said that it is wrong to think that Maldives' foreign policy can have only two choices: either rely on India or turn to China.

It said: “These voices completely ignore the fact that the Maldives is an independent sovereign country with legitimate interests and demands. As Muizzu has said before, the Maldives has no intention of getting involved in the geopolitical struggle between bigger powers and will cooperate with all countries, including India and China.”

“Indian and Western public opinions always view the Maldives through the lens of the competition between China and India. For them, the Maldives, due to its strategic importance, has become a piece of meat in the struggle between China and India.”

“In their view, only when the Maldives complies with India can they feel relieved. Moving closer to other countries is seen as a form of betrayal. This is a lack of respect for the Maldives.”

“Chinese diplomacy is a true implementation of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, treating all sovereign countries equally regardless of size, respecting their sovereignty, not interfering in their internal affairs, and not targeting third parties.”

“Furthermore, in the development of relations between China and the Maldives, there is no requirement for the Maldives to sour relations with India or any other country, without exclusivity and without involving third-party conditions.”

The United States opened an embassy in Male in 2023. Although the US is at odds with India on some issues, it shares with India concern over the spreading tentacles of China in the Maldives and the IOR.

With the US teaming up with India, President Muizzu may come under heavy pressure to either abandon or significantly modify his pro-China stance.