India’s External Affairs Minister, Mrs. Sushma Swaraj, accompanied by the Foreign Secretary Mr. Vijay Gokhale and other senior officials, was on an official visit to the Maldives this week, at the invitation of Maldivian Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid. This was Mrs. Swaraj’s second visit to the Indian Ocean Island since 2014 and first visit after Mr. Ibrahim Solih became President of Republic of Maldives in 2018.
The entire gamut of bilateral relations was reviewed and discussions were held to solidify the relations between the two countries. The Indian External Affairs Minister had a joint ministerial meeting with the Maldives foreign minister; minister of defence; minister of finance; minister of national planning and infrastructure; minister of health; and other senior ministers. Mrs. Swaraj called on President Ibrahim Solih, the Speaker of the Parliament, and the Maldivian Minister of Home Affairs. She also met former President Mohamed Nasheed.
In a one to one meeting between Mrs. Swaraj and Mr. Shahid, the two leaders reviewed the progress on the commitments announced during President Solih’s State visit to India in December 2018 and agreed on a broad spectrum of issues for future collaboration which include development cooperation and strengthening people to people contacts. The Maldivian Foreign Minister gave special emphasis on Maldives’s commitment to remain sensitive on India’s strategic and security concerns.
During the joint ministerial meeting, the two sides discussed the ways to enhance bilateral relations on variety of issues including consular issues, capacity development, health, trade, investment and economic cooperation. External Affairs Minister announced India’s decision to renew the quota for essential commodities, as requested by the Maldives, including river sand and stone aggregate for a period of 3 years, starting from April 1, 2019. During the meeting, the Indian side agreed to positively consider the Maldives’ request for Indian assistance for the construction of a cricket stadium.
Discussions on the steps to enhance security coordination were also held in the meeting between Mrs. Swaraj and the Maldivian Home Affairs Minister, Imran Abdullah. The Indian Minister in her meeting with the Speaker of Maldivian Parliament Qasim Ibrahim reiterated India’s commitment to support Maldives in its path of peace, development, prosperity and democracy.
During the meeting with President Ibrahim Solih, productive discussions were held on the follow up to his India visit.
Three agreements were signed between the two countries which include: an Agreement on exemption from visa requirement for diplomatic and official passport holders, Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) regarding India’s grant assistance for implementation of high impact community development projects through local bodies and the MoU on collaboration in the field of energy efficiency and renewable energy.
During the visit, the External Affairs Minister visited the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital in Male, which was gifted by India to the archipelago nation in 1995.
It is expected that the visit would further strengthen the bilateral relations which had deteriorated under the Yameen administration. Following the Presidential elections in the Maldives in 2018, there is emergence of renewed dynamism in the bilateral relations between the two countries.
However, a section led by a former leader is still trying to ignite anti-India sentiments by launching protests against the presence of Indian military personnel, who are stationed in the island nation for maintenance of the two choppers gifted by India. The current regime however has severely criticised the baseless protests and even blocked it.
Ignoring the protest, the Maldivian government has vigorously reiterated its ‘India First policy’. It is in convergence with “India’s neighbourhood first policy”. Both India and the Maldives are committed to take this convergence of interests to strengthen their bilateral relations. The joint statement issued on the visit of Mrs. Sushma Swaraj to the Maldives reflects the commitment of the two nations to deepen their existing friendly ties.
Script: Gulbin Sultana, Researcher, IDSA