It was a tweet by Mohammed Nasheed, Speaker of the Maldivian Parliament or Majlis as they call it, that informed the world that he had met India's National Security Adviser Ajit Doval during his visit to New Delhi to participate in the Raisina Dialogue last week.
"It was very pleasant to have a conversation with a grandmaster of geopolitics," tweeted Nasheed, who's also a former president of the Maldives – the first one to be democratically elected.
Not many visiting speakers of Parliament, even if former presidents, would get an audience with the NSA. But then, New Delhi knows only too well that it cannot afford to ignore Nasheed, who remains an important player in the politics of the strategically-located archipelago in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) even though he completed his term as president a decade ago.
As India strives to retain its strategic space in the Maldives, a nation that straddles vital sea lanes, it knows well that it needs to remain closely engaged with politicians of all hues in the country. This engagement has acquired a sense of urgency as the archipelago is headed for elections next year.
Hence New Delhi's outreach to Nasheed, who is co-chair of the ruling Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) and one who could make or break his party's attempts to win a second term. And there is, of course, also the possibility of Nasheed returning as president if the MDP wins again in 2023.
Nasheed is MDP co-chair along with his childhood friend, President Ibu Solih. The party swept to power in the 2018 elections with a two-thirds majority in the Majlis, defeating the China-leaning Abdulla Yameen, who was seeking re-election. Nasheed was unable to become president as he was barred from contesting the 2018 polls after his conviction on a terrorism charge brought in by the Yameen government.
Even as the Speaker, Nasheed remains an important or, to put it more bluntly, frequently disruptive element for both his party and the coalition government President Solih leads, often keeping both on tenterhooks. His actions and utterances have given not merely the Solih government but even New Delhi cause for concern. For, an unstable political environment is seen as one that will only help Beijing regain lost ground in the archipelago.
Indeed, India has significantly stepped up its strategic engagement with both the Maldives and Sri Lanka in recent years, its eyes clearly on the expanding Chinese footprint in countries in the IOR. In the case of the Maldives, New Delhi has seized the opportunity, and rightly so, to reach out to the Solih government not just diplomatically but also through the execution of big and small infrastructure projects.
A trilateral maritime security cooperation mechanism at the National Security Adviser level instituted in 2011 between the Maldives, India and Sri Lanka was revived in 2020 after a gap of six years. In its new avatar as the Colombo Security Conclave, it welcomed Mauritius into the fold last month and had Mauritius and Bangladesh present as observers.
With the Maldives, a playground for great powers contestation, and with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan fuelling radicalisation in the country, New Delhi knows only too well that it cannot afford to let its guard down.
After the India-leaning MDP swept to power in 2018, China clearly does not enjoy the pre-eminent position it did during Yameen's tenure. But, it continues to nip at India's heels, and New Delhi is well aware that it cannot afford to slacken its outreach at either the political or diplomatic level to the Maldives. And Nasheed can be ignored only at its own peril.
In the past, Nasheed has accused ministers of his own government of corruption, often called for a switch from a presidential to a parliamentary form of government, which is perceived as an attempt by him to lead the Maldives once again as prime minister, and most recently asked MDP members to quit the government.
True to form, in remarks made after delivering a lecture on 'Indian Ocean Security' during his New Delhi visit, Nasheed once again appeared to undermine the Solih government. For instance, he said that the MDP had promised debt restructuring through legislation but had not done so.
He also sought to explain away his demand that the MDP quit the government, saying "it isn't an MDP government" and that his party has its "own policies, manifesto, views". As for the 'India Out' decree issued recently by the Solih government banning the campaign which was being spearheaded by the Yameen-led Opposition, Nasheed maintained it had no resonance in the Maldives and that not even Yameen's party wanted this to happen.
But Nasheed ensured he made remarks that would be music to the ears of the Indian establishment, lashing out at China for its debt-trap diplomacy. So among other things, he said that nearly 70 per cent of Maldives' foreign debt is owed to China, that it had inflated the cost of projects so that the Maldives would get into a debt trap.
Without a doubt, Chinese moves in the Maldives need to be watched closely, even if its influence has waned with the Solih government in power. Notwithstanding the recent ban on the Opposition-led 'India Out' campaign, which many believe has China's backing, New Delhi knows Beijing is waiting in the wings to regain its influence. And hence its need to use all stratagems to not lose out in the Great Game.
(The writer is a senior journalist)