A new tension is colouring relations between neighbours India and the Maldives. The Maldives had been a favourite tourist spot for Indians but there is now a wariness about just how welcome Indians would be in that country.

From long before becoming President in 2023, the Maldives’ new President Mohammed Muizzu and his party had deliberately been throwing punches at India claiming that the former President Ibrahim Solih had entered into agreements with India that impacted on the sovereignty of the Maldives.

In his latest salvo President Muizzu said that no Indian military personnel, or even those in civilian clothing, would be allowed to be present inside his country after May 10. His comments came shortly after the first batch of Indian technical personnel arrived in Maldives to replace existing personnel including those who had manned helicopters given by India. There was local criticism that the fresh lot of technical personnel were actually military personnel wearing civilian clothes-prompting the latest remarks from the Maldivian President.

Tracing the history of Maldivian domestic politics and the depth of the bilateral Indo-Maldivian relationship becomes imperative to assess what the future holds.

The Maldives gained independence from the British in 1965. China was one of the first countries to recognize Maldives’ independence and sovereignty with others hesitating. Since then the country has been a focus of rivalry between India and China reflected in the leanings of the leaders of local political parties.

Primarily because of the country’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean, China has been vying for expanding its influence there very clearly at the expense of Indian interests. The presence of several international sea lines of communications is one factor for China’s aggressive push into the Indian Ocean as an active player.

China has always sought a military presence on the Arabian Sea to safeguard its access to oil from the Persian Gulf. And India, which has engaged in allout war with China and continues to face clashes along the border with its northern neighbour, is not comfortable with its maritime neighbour ,the Maldives, becoming a cat’s paw for China.

Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, was elected president in 1978 succeeding Ibrahim Nasir, Prime Minister under the pre-1968 sultanate. Gayoom held office from 1968 to 1978 and was re-elected in 1983, 1988, 1993, 1998, and 2003. After local protests following the death of a prisoner, political parties were allowed to register in June 2005 with the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), the Dhivehi Raiyyithunge Party (DRP), the Islamic Democratic Party (IDP) and the Adhaalath Party, being the first to register. Relations between the Maldives and India remained cordial and stable and in 1998 India had sent troops to thwart a coup attempt against President Abdul Gayoom. The troops were withdrawn immediately afterwards.

In 2008 Mohammed Nasheed, a pro Indian political leader of the Maldivian Democratic Party party defeated Gayoom and was elected President. Relations between the Maldives and India flourished. There was a hiccup in the 2013-18 period when pro- China President Abdullah Yameen of the People’s National Party cancelled a couple of projects with India including an airport development project by the GMR and a waste management deal made with Tatva Global Renewable Energy.

India was also asked to take back two helicopters it had gifted to the Maldives for humanitarian rescue missions. The decisions affected the close bilateral relations with India. but also caused an economic burden. Maldives had to pay US$270 million in compensation for cancelling the GMR project. Following the cancellation of the project, India tightened the visa requirements for the Maldivians and revoked a special quota for the import of aggregate and river sand.

The closeness was restored when Ibrahim Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party won the 2018 elections with an “India First” approach. Three defence and security agreements were signed between India and Maldives

In 2019, Mohammed Nasheed was elected as Speaker of the People's Majlis or Parliament and Indo-Maldivian relations remained stable and cordial. Over the decades the Maldives, a country of 5,00,000 people, continued to depend on India for essentials like rice, vegetables, medicines, and humanitarian assistance.

Solih stood as a contender in the September 2023 Presidential elections after defeating Speaker of the People's Majlis Mohamed Nasheed in the Maldivian Democratic Party primaries but was defeated in the two round race by People's National Congress candidate and Malé mayor 45 year old Mohamed Muizzu .

And Muizzu’s election had placed a question on the direction Indo-Maldivian relations would take in the coming years.

Muizzu was close to Former President Abdullah Yameen who had been sentenced to five years in jail and fined $5 million in 2019 for embezzling $1 million in state funds, reportedly illicitly acquired through the lease of resort development rights. He was freed in 2020. Muizzu had started his political career in the Adhaalath Party (AP). He left the party to join the Maldives Development Alliance (MDA), where he served as the party’s deputy leader. He then joined the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), in which he had also held the post of the deputy leader.

His choice as the Presidential contender of the PPM-PNC coalition was a result of the Supreme Court refusing to allow former President Abdullah Yameen to contest. His one single platform throughout the election campaign was “ India Out” which called for expelling about 80 Indian military personnel stationed across the Maldives to provide support. Reports suggest that this slogan or platform had resonated among the young voters in the Maldives.

He was not an unknown quantity. During his seven years as the housing minister under Abdullah Yameen , Muizzu was one of the most active ministers. With a PhD in civil engineering from the University of Leeds he was instrumental as Housing Minister in implementing many infrastructural development projects such as the Sinamale’ bridge, reclamation of Hulhumale’ Phase II in addition to the development of 7,000 flats on the land, the 25-story Dharumavantha hospital and King Salman Mosque.

A number of housing projects were carried out in both Male’ area and atolls under Muizzu’s as well as the development of parks and recreational spaces in. Asphalt was also laid on a Male’ road for the first time under his charge. He had repeatedly said that his one and only priority was securing the interests of the Maldives. Muizzu had called for a generic Maldivian nationalism, in favor of the islands’ own language and its Islamic values.

Muizzu’s election manifesto presented an ambitious economic plan. It involved a promise to undertake a three-pronged approach to national development, by establishing a stable economy, revolutionary transformation, and economic expansion. Among its highlights were the promise to recover the state debt; increase of the Maldives' Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to MVR 150 billion; Reducing the state budget's deficit to a single digit, and increase the country's reserve within the next five years; new SEZ opportunities across Maldives, and establishing a new investment bank to facilitate in bringing foreign investments; reforming the housing and urbanization sector, and the promise that no citizen would be without housing under his rule; expansion of tourism; development of seven urban regions nationwide, as well as the establishment of a transhipment hub in Addu, Fuvahmulah, and Huvadhu atolls; and increments in salaries in three phases.

On the external front his first visit was to Turkey followed by one to China. During his China visit 20 key agreements were concluded including one on the Rasmale’ land reclamation project – the new Maldivian administration’s biggest housing project. There was also an Action Plan between the Government of the People's Republic of China and the Government of the Republic of Maldives for Building a China-Maldives Comprehensive Strategic Cooperative Partnership (2024-2028).

On March 4,2024 China and the Maldives had signed an agreement with China agreeing to provide military assistance on a gratis basis for military training and improvement of technical capacity of military personnel as well. According to the World Bank the Maldives owed China $1.37 billion, or around 20% of its public debt.

Shortly after his visit to China, Muizzu set March 15,2024 as the deadline for India to withdraw all its troops from the Maldives. Despite his anti-India posture and comment that,though a small country the Maldives could not be bullied, he was forced to discipline three Ministers from the Ministry of Youth Empowerment, Information and Arts for their derogatory comments about the Indian Prime Minister on social media.

Given developments so far one wonders how far Muizzu would go to antagonise India and cuddle up to China. It would be a risky proposition since Indian tourism contributes considerably to the Maldivian economy as does the ready flow of essentials over decades. Would he accommodate a Chinese military base in Maldives to thumb his nose at India? Some political commentators including a cousin of former President Nasheed has said that the Maldives cannot afford a fistfight with India. But all signs suggest that Muizzu’s jabs will keep coming.