Coalition partners rally around Solih against Yameen’s ‘India Out’ campaign

  • Maldives
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PUBLISHED 08 January 2022

With all four partners in the ruling coalition of President Ibrahim Solih separately coming down on predecessor and rival Abdulla Yameen’s ‘India Out’ campaign, the government too has said that it would not tolerate it. Symbolically, the police have already arrested fours person wearing ‘India Out’ T-shirts. The question has since arisen if Yameen’s PPM-PNC combine can sustain the momentum of its one-point manifesto for the presidential polls that is two years away or would it add bread-and-butter issues on the top of it, in the coming days?

Heading the mainstay, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) Leader of the coalition and Parliament Speaker, Mohammed Nasheed, was the first to declare that the Opposition’s campaign should not be allowed to continue. The other three partners, namely, the Jumhooree Party (JP), religion-centric Adhaalath Party (AP) and former President Gayoom’s Maumoon Reform Movement (MRM) have since come out with strong statements of the kind. In between, Ali Zahir, Chief of Staff at the President’s Office, an AP nominee, has stated that the “government will not tolerate the Opposition campaign”.

The show of coalition unity may have unnerved the Opposition ranks, which had hoped to capitalise on the internal divisions within the ruling coalition. Former President Nasheed had openly targeted the Solih dispensation on the graft front for over a year, with mixed results. Having been caught with his hand in the till, Yameen may have divined that binding an anti-India line to Solih and hoping it to work in the presidential polls of 2023, may be the only campaign option available to him.

The government has also disproved the Yameen camp’s criticism on the developmental front. Individual islands have requirement-specific social and civil infrastructure under work, many of them with Indian aid. There is also greater appreciation for President Solih’s handling of the unmanageable COVID-19 pandemi, with the government risking reputation and political stability by opening up the mainstay tourism industry as far back as 15 July 2020, when most other tourism economies were still recovering from the pandemic.

Through all this, there is an all-round unacknowledged appreciation for India, for rushing COVID-19 testing-kits and vaccines while over-looking domestic needs up to a point. Maldives continues to receive post-pandemic aid from New Delhi while Indian tourists top the global chart, lending speedier vibrancy to the nation’s tourist economy.

Second- and third-rung leaders in the Yameen combine are reportedly alive to the mood of the common man. Oftentimes, the latter fondly recalls India’s open-export and open-visa regimes for Maldives and Maldivians, who too have been in the grip of the consumerist economy that the tourism economy has bolstered over the years. Many have also benefited from affordable Indian medical care and higher education in the immediate vicinity.

The people will also need to be convinced about any malicious effects of the presence of Indian flying machines, pilots, and technical personnel, who have only engaged in humanitarian emergency operations responding to medical and natural disaster emergencies. They also recount New Delhi rushing in troops that helped neutralise the mercenary-driven coup against President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (‘Operation Cactus’, 1988).

Campaign strategy

In a shrewd move, Yameen lost no time in taking his campaign away from the urban capital of Malé, with 40 percent of the nation’s population, to sparsely populated islands, where people supposedly live insulated lives. Similar to the news conferences in Malé, in the rallies too Yameen said there was “no need for Indian military presence”. He called for a ‘public vote’ or referendum (?) and at the same time predicted that the “Solih Government will go when Indian military exited”.  As if repeating the oft-quoted Chinese position, he also said, “Indian Ocean is not India’s Ocean”.

Yet, the nation’s polity, starting with the Yameen leadership of the Opposition combine, is incidentally unwilling to accept that television news channels and the ubiquitous social media over the past decade especially have changed it all in recent decades. Islanders also touch and feel India’s benign presence. To them, the Indian military presence is all about the ready-to-use helicopter/Dornier service in medical and natural disaster emergencies. These may explain the poor turnouts in Yameen’s ‘India Out’ rallies in the islands.

The present campaign is a take-off on the Yameen-designed ‘December 23 Movement’ protest in 2011–12 that led to the exit of President Nasheed on the one hand, and the scrapping of the projects of the Indian infra major GMR Group on the other. The protest was premised on ‘Islamic nationalism’ that worked in an era before social media. The premise stood on twin legs. One was religion that swept the nation over 800 years ago. The other was ‘national pride’ imbibed first from the reclaiming of the Maldives from 13 years of Portuguese occupation in the 16th century and later from ensuring that the nation remained only a British protectorate while larger neighbours, Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, and India, were colonised for centuries.

Opinions differ on whether Yameen is adopting a time-tested strategy or if the current campaign only exposed the lack of originality this time. The electoral effect of the same may also be far to seek, given the Yameen camp’s inability to connect with the masses as in the past thus far. Unlike on the previous occasion, the incumbent President is not dependent on the Yameen MPs for his parliamentary majority, indicating possibilities of political instability. For this reason, Yameen may not be able to maintain his campaign’s momentum this time unlike in the past. Three, the dominant presence of social media this time, can cut both ways.

Coalition conundrums

The Opposition campaign has thrown up future possibilities for rival coalitions. For the ruling combine, Speaker Nasheed’s call against Yameen’s campaign has prima facie jeopardised even the remote possibility of the latter backing his call for adopting the parliamentary scheme of governance. The MDP’s allies are all against Nasheed’s proposal and could quit the coalition if it came to that. Independent of differing views from within, the Nasheed-led MDP too does not seem to have the stomach to face the constitutionally-mandated national referendum, as an intervening adverse result would impact the presidential polls later.

It is becoming increasingly clear that Yameen’s continued obsession with his current agenda alone would be enough to keep the stressed ruling coalition together—and possibly as strong as in the victorious 2018 presidential polls. There is also the unaired view within the PPM-PNC combine that identifying local adversary, Solih, with external Indian benefactor of the masses could absolve the former of his alleged sins. Given the image of corruption still attached to their leader despite the recent Supreme Court verdict in his favour, unlike MDP’s Nasheed, the Yameen camp is both unwilling and unconvincing in levelling corruption charges against the Solih government.

The Supreme Court verdict ensured that the PPM-PNC camp had a ‘winnable’ presidential candidate, who is also the unquestioned party boss. Any future conviction and consequent electoral disqualification of Yameen in the two pending corruption cases—one of them opening in the first week of the New Year—could reopen hidden presidential ambitions of a multitude of second-line leaders, throwing the party into unmatched disarray. It is unclear if Yameen’s oft-repeated statement that he had not taken a call on contesting the presidential poll is premised on anticipation and anxieties over the outcome of the pending cases.

Tactical inadequacies

An extra-combine sign of the stress became available when the recently-formed Maldivian National Party (MNP) of one-time Yameen ministerial aide, Col Mohamed Nasim (retd) began attacking the estranged boss, after lying low in the weeks immediately after the Supreme Court verdict in Yameen’s favour. Given his presidential ambitions, MNP’s Nasim now hopes to benefit politico-electorally from any adverse verdict against Yameen in the pending trials.

There are also tactical inadequacies in Yameen’s approach. One, it would be very difficult for him to sustain the shelf-life of his current campaign agenda. An alternate candidate in his place cannot carry on with what has become his personalised agenda with whatever acceptance it has now. Given the anticipated extra time, it may take Yameen extra effort to convince his party of a candidate primarily of his choice; and if it came to that, the latter could have little time or focus to dish out an alternative agenda that can carry the masses.

There is another angle, too. The high 42 percent that voted for Yameen in the 2018 presidential polls that he lost, was for the nation’s ‘development man’, whatever may be his democratic inadequacies. To them all, Yameen is wasting his time on extraneous factors that also have the tendency of externalising what essentially is internal politics, whose consequences they all had felt he alienated, first during his anti-India campaign in 2011-13, and later as President (2013-18).

Yameen’s loyalist voters from 2018 as also the high percentage of ‘swing voters’ from all three multi-party presidential polls in the past, expect only a post-pandemic growth plan from ‘economist-politician’ Yameen, against what they see as Solih’s creditable holding operations. In this, they acknowledge multi-layered Indian contributions, as only the closest neighbour and long-standing partner can do, but Yameen’s current posturing is at odds with their understanding of the nation’s economy and donors.