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Nirupama Subramanian

Lakshadweep vs Maldives: Why putting pressure through social media won’t win Delhi friends

A question I heard often from Indian visitors to Sri Lanka during a longish posting in that country went something like this: “Yaar, how are they so clean?” Implicit, and sometimes stated in so many words, was actually this: “They are just an extension of India, the people are of the same stock, so how come they are not like us Indians?”

That was in the 1990s, when the great Indian traveller was yet to take wing and when India’s policy with its neighbours was not yet straitjacketed by China. Three decades later, more Indians have travelled abroad, yet there is even less public appreciation that India’s neighbours, however small, are each sovereign, culturally distinct, speak languages that are not Hindi or its variants, value their independence, and make economic and foreign policy decisions based on their own national interests.

Not vassals

Whether it’s Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal, or the Maldives, Indians want smaller nations in the neighbourhood to show gratitude and “loyalty,” forgetting that these are not vassals but countries with their own diversities and political dynamics, in which India’s size and its economic and military power are admired and envied but are also a matter of concern.

Today, large sections of hypernationalist Indians would be happiest if India would just flex its military muscle to show the Maldives – population-wise the size of a Delhi neighbourhood – who’s boss. For those who see foreign policy as zero-sum games, it has been difficult to understand that Maldivian voters have elected a leader who, instead of waiting for an invitation from Delhi to show his fealty, decided that Turkey would be his first official port of call. Never mind that India could not fit him in even after that, and he took up Beijing’s invitation next.

Instead of a push-back from the top against such simplistic views of the neighbourhood, there seems to be an increasing willingness in Delhi’s top policy-making circles to hand over difficult diplomatic challenges to the thuggish social media street. Where India’s National Security Guard once saved a besieged Maldivian leader from an attempted coup, a landmark high-point in India's neighbourhood policy, now India’s designated IT cells and troll armies believe they have scored big by getting Indians to cancel their honeymoons and snorkelling holidays in the Maldives, and Indian travel biggies to cancel bookings en masse.

Trolling as diplomacy

This is not the first time that those in charge of India’s foreign policy have ceded space to social media. In the spat over the Nijjar killing, once Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went public with concerns about the possible involvement of the Indian government in the incident, the official badmouthing of Canada was a cue for social and electronic media to begin an all-out attack on #Canadistan (by the way, #justsaying, it’s a country that a lot of Indians call home, so there must be something about this “North American Pakistan” that remains hugely attractive to large numbers of people who want to leave India). 

On Israel’s brutal war in Gaza, in which over 23,000 civilians have been killed, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s signalling of all-out support to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, appeared to have been taken by IT cells as a green light to launch a social media war against Hamas, Palestinians and Muslims in general. The fake posts generated from Indian handles have embarrassed even the Israeli Defence Forces, and earned India a place in a hall of fame of its own.

What happens in India...

The total population of the Maldives, an archipelago of 26 atolls, is not more than 5,00,000. After three decades of one-man rule, it is only since 2008 that the Maldives has had free and fair multiparty elections. It’s a noisy democracy. No leader has been elected twice. Its people are apparently unafraid of interrogating their leaders. Despite its seeming isolation in the Indian Ocean, this Islamic nation was not untouched by 9/11 and its aftermath. Wahabism, Al-Qaeda, and, in later years, ISIS, all found traction in the Maldives.

Unable to counter hardline Islamism with blanket bans on hijab and beards, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom – the absolute ruler for three decades from 1978, winning six straight terms in one-party elections – was persuaded to agree to democratic reforms in the early years of the 21st century. India was the beacon of democracy in the region and inspired many in the Maldivian Democratic Party. But India’s own turn to Hindutva, the open Muslim-baiting since 2014 incidents of mob violence against Muslims, and Karnataka’s hijab row have not helped the case of those Maldivians who have wanted closer ties with Delhi.

Despite the “India First” policy of the previous Ibrahim Solih government, in 2021, the Maldives was forced by domestic compulsions to join in the condemnation of the former BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma’s remarks against Prophet Mohammed. Solih’s decision to criminalise anti-India protests by presidential decree did not help. All this fed into the “India Out” campaign, which began on social media with local influencers wanting to know why Indian military personnel are stationed in the Maldives. 

A political agenda became apparent when former President Abdulla Yameen took leadership. But as India knows from its own experience, political agendas in foreign affairs and national security are not unique to the Maldives. Which self-respecting country wants foreign troops on its soil or can paper over it in the hope that people will not come to know?

Write Lakshadweep, read Maldives

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reasons for promoting Lakshadweep as a tourist destination suddenly are not entirely clear. The place has no tourist infrastructure. No super-luxury resorts where film stars can Instagram themselves during fully paid for promotional holidays or where models can pose for the Kingfisher calendar. And Lakshadweep’s corals got bleached decades ago.

The last time the fully Muslim Union Territory in the Arabian Sea grabbed headlines was over the actions of its administrator, Praful Khoda Patel, a controversial political appointee. His first decisions there in 2021 triggered a ‘Save Lakshadweep Campaign’. At the time, no one on social media took up this cry for help from Lakshadweep. No wonder that when the Prime Minister wrote “go to Lakshadweep”, Indian social media warriors quickly read it as “teach Maldives a lesson”.

That President Muizzu’s ministers joined the fray with personal attacks on Prime Minister Modi was inexcusable. He could have sacked them to send a more conciliatory message to India, but with a parliamentary election coming up in April, Muizzu is unlikely to back down. The opposition’s victory in the Male mayoral contest is being celebrated in India as if Muizzu has lost his own election. It will mean more anti-India rhetoric as elections draw closerHis March 15 deadline for Indian troops to leave the country, despite ongoing negotiations on this issue with India, has to be seen in this context.

Maldives knows that India is its closest neighbour, and rhetoric aside, Delhi has to be the first responder to any crisis in that country, whether it’s a natural disaster or a water shortage like in 2014. But for the present, as indicated by the Maldivian president’s visit to China in the middle of the row with India, India-Maldives relations are bound to be uneven. Among the slew of agreements he signed in Beijing was one evidently aimed at reducing food dependence on India. He has also taken steps to reduce health and medical dependence on India. Maldives’s small size was not a licence to bully it, he added.

Muizzu has not yet said anything about the Indian development of a naval harbour for the Maldivian National Defence Force at Uthuru Thila Falhu atoll, for which Defence Minister Rajnath Singh laid the foundation stone last year. Nor has he spoken about the $500 million Greater Male Connectivity Project, the largest infrastructure project in the Maldives, being developed by the Indian AFCONS, with Delhi providing a $100 million grant and a $400 million line of credit.

Now that social media has wrought its damage, it will be up to the diplomats on both sides to pick up the pieces. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s remark, “politics is politics,”  has come a little late in the day, but it conveys well that diplomacy is hard work with no guaranteed results.

Neighbours watching

The Maldives may find Chinese and other tourists to replace Indians. And Indians may still head to the Maldives. But Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and even an apparently friendly Bangladesh would have watched this latest episode in India-Maldives ties with considerable interest. Like the Maldives, Sri Lanka’s economy too is dependent on tourism to a large extent. Nepal is a landlocked neighbour that has been blockaded by India twice, and believes in the slogan that India uses for 26/11: “Never forget”.  India once withdrew fuel subsidies to Bhutan. 

The ferocity of the social media attack, and the participation of Indian celebrities in it would have only confirmed the traditional insecurities about “big brother” that these countries harbour.  The India-Maldives row may be about bilateral ties, but it will send ripples around the neighbourhood, making India's Neighbourhood First policy more complicated and difficult than it is already.

Newslaundry is a reader-supported, ad-free, independent news outlet based out of New Delhi. Support their journalism, here.

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