Opinion: Maldives Should Avoid Provoking New Delhi

In this day and age of social media, diplomacy is facing new challenges. At times, the cacophony of social media drowns out the really important issues that need engagement, but sometimes it manages to bring to the fore the underlying trends that otherwise would take time to shape up. The India-Maldives spat is one such case where the simmering tensions have boiled over with some needless comments from Male highlighting how the once-close neighbours seem to be drifting away. The rhetorical exuberance of some members of the new government in the Maldives have exposed the substantive differences between New Delhi and Male as well as with the Maldives.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Lakshadweep last week seems to have triggered a social media and a diplomatic storm, which continues to reverberate in multiple dimensions. From social media influencers to local politicians and from Bollywood celebrities to the strategic community, everyone seems to have a view. The Indian Prime Minister visited Lakshadweep to inaugurate the Kochi-Lakshadweep Islands Submarine Optical Fiber Connection and some other projects but while doing so he also took time out for some snorkeling and leisure activities that took social media by storm.

As some in India suggested that boosting tourism in Lakshadweep would be a good idea, some in the Maldives saw Modi's visit as an attempt to project Lakshadweep as an alternative tourist destination to the Maldives. In the process, derogatory remarks against Indians and the Prime Minister were made, which led to a strong reaction in India. Some of these comments came from deputy ministers in the Ministry of Youth Empowerment, Information and Art of the Maldives in response to which the hashtag #BoycottMaldives started trending on X, with many Indians expressing their displeasure and some even cancelling their plans to visit the Maldives.

The governments sprung to action quickly, with the Ministry of External Affairs summoning Maldivian ambassador Ibrahim Shaheeb. This was followed by the Maldivian government summoning the Indian High Commissioner, Munu Mahawar.

The government of President Mohamed Muizzu understood the gravity of the situation and has responded by suspending three deputy ministers for their offensive social media posts. In a statement, the Maldivian ministry of foreign affairs acknowledged "the existence of derogatory comments on social media platforms directed at foreign leaders and dignitaries," and underlined that "these comments are personal views and do not align with the official stance of the Maldives."

From a high under Ibrahim Solih, relations between the Maldives and India have been on shaky grounds since President Mohamed Muizzu came to power. He had run his campaign on an anti-India platform  his 'India out' campaign garnered significant attention last year. Accusing India and the previous Maldivian government of violating the country's sovereignty, Muizzu had asked India to remove its troops from the country immediately after being sworn in. Turkey was Muizzu's first destination for a bilateral visit and he is in China this week, breaking a long held tradition whereby his predecessors used to visit India first after taking office. Male was absent from the Colombo Security Conclave meeting in December. And more recently, Muizzu's government decided to not renew an agreement with New Delhi that allowed India to conduct hydrographic surveys in Maldivian waters.

The latest crisis has further reinforced this divergence between two traditionally close neighbours. All states in South Asia and Indian Ocean region have to balance between their two regional behemoths - India and China. It requires a fine diplomatic balance. In the case of the Maldives under Muizzu, that balance has gone haywire and it is this imbalance that is leading to a dangerous situation where not only ties between the two governments but also between the two peoples are likely to be impacted by long term consequences.

Despite domestic posturing, there has been a realisation in the Maldives in the past that India remains a valuable security partner in the region, making up for Male's scarce maritime surveillance capacity and capabilities. It is no coincidence that even Abdullah Yameen, under whose Presidency Male drifted closer to China, continued defence cooperation with India even during the roughest phase of bilateral relations. India is also the Maldives' biggest trade partner, a top export destination, and a traditional donor. Tourism sustains the economy of the Maldives and the largest number of visitors to the island nation come from India. It doesn't require great foresight to conclude that Male should avoid provoking New Delhi. If for New Delhi the Maldives is an important partner, given its critical geography in the Indian Ocean, then for Male too India remains a critical economic and security anchor in the region. This makes it imperative that mutual sensitivities are respected with clearly articulated red-lines.

Harsh V. Pant is a Professor of International Relations at King's College London. His most recent book is "India's Afghan Muddle" (HarperCollins)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.