All nations, including India, would be watching for inclinations on how the ‘new Maldives’ intends to avoid a China-induced ‘debt-trap’ of the kind into which neighbouring Sri Lanka has fallen.
N Sathiya Moorthy 4 June 2019
A day after electing former President and ruling MDP boss Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed as the Speaker, Maldives’ new Majlis passed a unanimous resolution, inviting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to address the House. According to media reports in the two countries, Modi is expected to undertake the first overseas visit of his second term in the second week of June.
Modi’s visit and his Majlis’ address assumes greater significance as Modi is the first foreign Head of State/Government to visit Maldives after President Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Solih’s historic election in September. A visitor addressing the Maldivian Majlis is a rare honour, and becomes possible only through a parliamentary resolution, independent of the party in power and/or the incumbent Government’s invitation for visiting the country.
Customarily, Indian Prime Ministers have been choosing a neighbourhood nation for their first overseas visit. Modi himself chose Bhutan during his first term.Another first in the context of bilateral/overseas ties for the Solih Government was Indian External Affairs Minister (EAM) Sushma Swaraj becoming the first foreign dignitary to visit Maldives under the new guard in Male.
The EAM visit, headed by an official delegation that included Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale, was a first of its kind on its own. It was possibly the first time that an EAM was visiting another nation despite both the countries already being on election-mode. The visit involved substantive work on identifying projects, clearing funds and signing the required agreements, after India committed $ 1.4-b infrastructural aid to Maldives during President Solih’s maiden overseas visit earlier in the year.
However, the ‘firsts’ do not stop there. PM Modi’s proposed visit was the first substantive announcement for new Speaker Nasheed after taking over office. For the Majlis, as the Maldivian Parliament is known, it was again a maiden substantive resolution after new members had taken their oaths and elected Nasheed as the Speaker.
Wiser counsels prevail
Nasheed’s election as Speaker however did kick up some excitement through the long interim period between the parliamentary polls on 6 April and the first session of the new Majlis on 28 May. As party boss, Nasheed had announced long-time law-maker Mohamed Aslam as MDP’s Speaker candidate.
With a massive 65-strong parliamentary group in the 87-member House, there was no doubt about the MDP being able to get its candidate elected- that too with a comfortable majority. But things got a little complicated when veteran MDP leader Hassan Afeef threw his hat into the ring. Despite clarifying that as the President he could not be seen as favouring one over the other of the party, Solih did say a few good things about Afeef days before the poll.
After a long meeting with Solih, Aslam in effect said that Afeef was not the President’s candidate. However, it possibly required former President Abdulla Yameen-led PPM-PNC’s combined unilateral declaration of support by its eight MPs for Afeef that helped the MDP close the ranks.
At the MDP parliamentary group’s formal meeting on the eve of the Parliament’s inaugural session, Nasheed became the natural choice, and he allowed himself to be persuaded. By the end of the parliamentary polls, Nasheed had declared himself the Leader of the House, helping and assisting President Solih in all his democratic and developmental endeavours.
The sudden change of situation has since left both Nasheed and the MDP with new options and decisions. The Constitution has no provision which states that the House Speaker cannot be member, more specifically the president, of a political party; predecessor Speaker Gasim Ibrahim headed the Jumhooree Party (JP). But the MDP had set the ‘one-man-one-post’ syndrome precedent in the country, though Nasheed alone was allowed to continue as both party boss and the nation’s President (2008-12). Now the question remains as to when and how the MDP will name the Leader of the House – whether it will be done before or after the VVIP visit and address to Parliament, and whether this will be through consensus or vote.
In the long term there is some reason for MDP’s concern. Despite their low numbers in the House, the Opposition did field a separate candidate, indicating for the trend for what is likely to come. JP’s Gasim got 17 votes, four more than the combined strength of the PPM-PNC and the JP’s Nasheed got 67, two more than the MDP’s parliamentary strength.
Later, his party colleague Eva Abdulla was elected Deputy Speaker in a single-candidate vote, 76-9. In its long history, Eva is only the second woman Deputy Speaker of the People’s Majlis. According to the Maldives Independent, Pro tem Speaker and senior-most memeber, Ahmed Siyam Mohamed, did not vote while one Opposition MP-elect had gone for the annual Umra pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.
At this point, it is anybody’s guess where the three contestants for the two posts got those extra votes from. Apart from the MDP (65), Yameen’s PPM-PNC combine (8) and JP (5), there are two MPs belonging to Yameen’s one-time ally, MDA. The seven Independents include a lone member belonging to the ‘non-registered’ party of former President, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. The party, ‘Maumoon Reform Movement’ (MRM), otherwise partnering with the MDP in Solih’s election and Government, like Gasim’s JP, did poorly in the parliamentary polls.
Second PM address
With the formal House resolution, Modi becomes the second Indian Prime Minister to address Maldives’ Majlis. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did so as a part of the official leg of his one day visit to the country, where he went to participate in the SAARC Summit, in November 2011. Speaker Nasheed was the President at the time, and present-day Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid, the Speaker. So, for Speaker Nasheed, PM Modi would be the first foreign dignitary, whose address to the House, he would now chair.
Now that both Governments and leaders have full five-year terms ahead of them, all eyes are on the upcoming visit, and its key take-aways which will go beyond the bilateral and regional scope. The international community will be watching how this visit would set the tone for future bilateral and regional relations involving extra-regional powers like China on the one hand and the US on the other.
In particular, all nations, including India, would be watching for inclinations on how the ‘new Maldives’ intends to avoid a China-induced ‘debt-trap’ of the kind into which neighbouring Sri Lanka has fallen. Both as a candidate and as the President Solih has since indicated that Maldive-China relations would continue unaffected, but without compromising Maldives’ ‘India First’ policy.
That was India’s problems with the erstwhile Yameen Government in Maldives even before Modi became PM. It was also the same under the previous Rajapksa regime and the incumbent, Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duality-leadership in Sri Lanka. It’s but a coincidence that India and Japan together signed an agreement with Sri Lanka to run Colombo Port’s East Container Terminal, the same day as the new Maldivian Parliament was sworn in.
It remains to be seen if India would initiate similar funding for Maldives, lending greater sense and purpose to the ‘Quad’ ‘democracy initiatives’ in the neighbourhood. Leaving aside India’s long and continuing relations with Maldives, including developmental funding and budgetary support, other Quad nations, especially Japan, have been associated with providing tech-aid to the Indian Ocean archipelago nation even in the sixties, under the late President Ibrahim Nasir.
(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter)