'India Out' vs 'Boycott Maldives': Tourism as an Instrument of Power

January 26, 2024

No one would have wildly imagined that a few stunning pictures of a coastal island could trigger cascading diplomatic short-fuse between two asymmetrical neighbouring countries. The truth is that both governments and social media of India and Maldives have been engaged in a severe tug of words and diplomatic row respectively for whose coastlines are better after the Indian Prime Minister visited the Indian archipelago Lakshadweep and shared a series of scenic pictures on January 4. Was it a calculated strategic move by India to expose the months-old pro-China government in Maldives? Or is it a tacit ploy to cajole economically Male through encouraging tourism nearby within Indian sovereignty as Atmanirbhar Bharat?    

There is a lot more to it than meets the eye. One can't be sure to point towards the origin of the India-Maldives latest tourism feud. Arguably, international relations are not limited to 'politics among nations' but include grand 'designs' defined and implemented by the leader at the helm of affairs. With such generic fluidity in the domain, scholars/analysts take unpunishable advantage of speculation in decoding the live incident.

Initially, one would wonder why the Prime Minister selected a half-day last leg stopover in the Lakshadweep on his two-day trip to Kerala and Tamil Nadu. With his reputation for being a workaholic, maximising the dividends from cost-effective official trips - domestic or international- and sending multiple tactical and sharp messages to various stakeholders, the stopover in the Union Territory was more than the inauguration or laying the foundation of projects. Inauguration or laying the foundation of Rs 1150 crores worth of several infrastructure projects is to begin a flourishing and futuristic tourism industry in 32 square kilometres of total area of the Union Territory consisting of 36 islands, just a few hundred kilometres above Maldives. Choosing an attire while strolling the pristine beach, similar to his first visit to the Philippines in 2017, the Prime Minister sent a message of solidarity with minority communities and business communities in the Union territory, States in Southern India and neighbours in the Indian Ocean. The Prime Minister knows that his presence in the Indian archipelago would disturb the anti-India radical groups in the Maldives, which continued and protected under President Muizzu.

As expected, ministers in the Muizzu government and other influential social media users reacted irresponsibly, immaturely and imprudently against India and the Prime Minister. To get attention and support from China and anti-India radical constituencies, the ministers used the usual China Ploy (criticising high-profile visits to territories illegally claimed by China) when any senior ministers visited Arunachal Pradesh. Both Arunachal Pradesh and Lakshadweep are integral parts of India. Consequently, a barge of sensational headlines in the Dhivehi (Maldivian), also speaks in Minicoy, the language by the handful of local news portals blamed and insulted India with offensive words that India had started a campaign against Maldives tourism. The intent of this anti-India sentiment has been brewing since 2020 when the 'India Out' campaign was spearheaded by the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) with its coalition partner, whose representative, President Muizzu, won the 2023 presidential election in November. However, the resentment against India can be traced to ever since Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom of the PPM became President in 2013. India Out is that the Muizzu government wants the remaining 77 Indian military personnel stationed within Maldivian territory to leave by March 15, 2024.  

After swearing in as President, the Muizzu government might have broken the tradition of not visiting India first. Still, the leader had met the Indian Prime Minister in Dubai on the sidelines of a climate change meeting on December 1, 2023.  While the Indian official statement never mentioned the contentious issue of military personnel withdrawal, the official tweet of the President's office in Male stated that the Indian government has assured the people of Maldives that it will respect their decision regarding withdrawing Indian troops from Maldives. After listening to India's External Affairs Minister's statement on the India-Maldives diplomatic row on January 13, it seems that recent developments concerning the Maldives have not perturbed India as India has already been prepared and has a perfect contingency plan for developing the tourism industry in Lakshadweep for this roundabout with an immature volatile neighbour.

Despite the Muizzu government suspending three empty-headed ministers and distancing from their derogatory remarks against India and the Prime Minister, a massive backlash against the Maldives from all sections of Indian society – industry, business houses, celebrities, media houses and citizens, fuelled a trending 'Boycott Maldives'. At the same time, the island country is divided on distancing India. In 2023, out of 18 lakh visitors, more than 2,09,198 Indians visited the Maldives, followed by Russians (2,09,146) and China (1,87,118), as per the Maldives Tourism Ministry. More than 2.4 lakh Indians visited in 2022, while over 2.11 lakh landed in 2021. During the pandemic, nearly 63,000 Indians visited that country. From accounting for 6.1 per cent in 2018 to 11.3 per cent in 2023 of total tourists' footfall in Maldives, Indian tourists have contributed to the tourism industry, one-third of the small island's economy. Despite not featuring in the top 10 holiday destinations for Indians, Maldives squarely needs India for its tourism industry.    

President Muizzu's self-indulgent responses like 'Maldives not in the backyard of any nation' and 'we may be small, but no one has a license to bully us' to the postings in social media and TV debates show anxiety, nervousness and vulnerability of his government to the external influence (read China). During his five-day state visit to China, while the 'Boycott Maldives' was storming, President Muizzu pleaded with China to reclaim its number one position of tourist share in visiting Maldives. President Muizzu even signed a tourism cooperation agreement with China among 20 key contracts, assuming the tourism industry will be hit hard due to the backlash. However, the notorious Chinese surveillance ship Xiang Yang Hong 3 is heading towards Male for a port call. Simply put, China has declared its presence in the Indian Ocean at India's doorstep. However, India will closely monitor that the Chinese ship doesn't engage in exploration activities in the Maldives Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). This is a 'five-year hiccup' for India till the next presidential election in Maldives.       

Experts believe that boycotting Maldives would cede more economic influence to China, and India must be careful about the pitfalls. Not disagreeing with such eventuality, the consequences of such economic influence in infrastructure development and tourist influx from China must be considered. Take the case of Sihanoukville, a coastal city and the only deep-water port in Cambodia. Once a sleepy town, it has become a 'Chinese enclave'. A decade ago, Cambodia invited Chinese money and tourists to Sihanoukville. Now, the Chinese own 90 per cent of the town's economy. Neither a Khmer food restaurant nor a Cambodian owner lived in the town, which many media called a 'Chinese Invasion'. Not very far from Male, one can see examples of such Chinese invasion (ensuring Chinese enclaves) on the Coast of Sri Lanka (Hambantota Port City) under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Maldivians must weigh such consequences before it's too late. The people of Maldives must choose between unsustainable, commercially unviable and debt-trap investment (China) and predictable, sustainable, accountable, transparent, participatory and partnership, mutually beneficial investment (India).          

Prime Minister and his Knight in the external affairs ministry are aware of the principles of total diplomacy in 'Sama', 'Dama', 'Danda' and 'Bheda' to reach a lasting solution in state politics to avoid conflicts. Despite tourism being considered a soft power, India must tighten the noose, when it can, through the tourism-based economy of Maldives to drive away religious fundamentalists and anti-India elements. Simultaneously, India must cautiously develop a sustainable and responsible tourism infrastructure on the fragile islands of Lakshadweep. Whether we like it or not, atolls in the Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea will be India's protective shield. 

Author Note
Avilash Roul (PhD) is a Senior Fellow at the Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict, New Delhi.