Unraveling Relations: Diplomatic Crisis Between India and the Maldives Amid Social Media Uproar

Narendra Modi’s visit to Lakshadweep: beauty, optimism, and diplomatic fallout.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the exquisite archipelago of Lakshwadeep, during which he strolled on the pristine beaches with optimism of boosting tourism in an unexplored region, has snowballed into an enormous issue, threatening creating enormous rifts in the strained diplomatic relations. Since pro-China candidate Mohamed Muiz was elected in November 2023, ties between the two countries have deteriorated. The Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, was celebrating the islands’ natural beauty and potential attractions for Indian tourists. This spurred ministers from the pro-China Muiz government Mariyam Shiuna, Malsha, and Hassan Zihan to make disparaging comments regarding India and Prime Minister Modi.

Celebrity Outrage and Online Boycotts: The Effects on Tourism and Political Dynamics

The insults made against India and Prime Minister Modi upset both netizens and celebrities. Major Bollywood actors John Abraham, Randeep Hooda, Akshay Kumar, Salman Khan, Sachin Tendulkar, and Amitabh Bachchan, among others, have all spoken out against abusive and racist slurs directed against Indian people. Many of them urged their people to encourage local tourism. Soon after, the #ExploreIndainIslands and #BoycottMaldives hashtags started trending on the internet. Many Indian tourists cancelled their vacation plans, with 10,500 flight reservations and 8,000 hotel cancellations reported. EaseMyTrip went on to suspend all flights to the Maldives.The social media boycott trend escalated into a tsunami of resentment against the Maldives, which is heavily reliant on tourism, and India, with around 209,198 visitors constituting up the largest group visiting the island country. The Confederation of All india Traders (CAIT) reported estimated loss of Rs.100 crore to Maldives.    

The repercussions of the hostility were felt across the island nation, as the Opposition’s Ali Azim pushed incumbent President Muiz to resign down. The joint opposition intends to file a no-confidence vote against the Muiz government, blaming him for the debacle.  The pro-India opposition has 55 members in the Maldives’ 81-member Parliament. Former Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih criticized the racist remarks made against India, and they want President Muiz’s ouster through impeachment. The Maldives government has banned three deputy ministers for making disparaging remarks about India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They characterized Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a “clown,” “terrorist,” and “Israeli puppet.”

The Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI) and the Maldives Association of Travel Agents and Tour Operators (MATATO) are attempting to mend the damage through urging reproachment with India. Tourism, the island nation’s livelihood, may suffer significantly as a result of a staggering 3400 percent increase in on-platform searches for Lakshadweep.The response against the Maldives in India, as well as the Maldives government’s apology for distancing itself from the words of suspended ministers, demonstrate that the island nations are taking steps to mitigate their loss and move forward. The online outrage from Indians has pushed the Maldives’ President to beg China to send more tourists to the country during his official visit. Media reports have also stated that Muizzu has sought to visit India this month end to rebuild lost ties.

Geopolitical Chess: China’s Impact, Strategic Concerns, and Economic Implications

The importance of Lakshwadeep is geostrategic, against China’s string of pearls in the Indian Ocean, and the Maldives plays a crucial role in countering the Chinese expanded presence in the region. According to Mumbai-based chartered accountant Sumeet Mehta, if India decides to cut ties, the Maldives will be completely entrapped by China. And the pro-China Maldives government’s decision to lift the suspension of the Joint Hydrographic Act could be reversed. The current status of an unspecified number of military soldiers stationed in the Maldives may not change. The absence of India will allow Chinese spy vessels to access the Indian Ocean region and spy on India.

The social media boycott trend has spread to the Maldives, affecting its heavily tourism-dependent economy. India, with 209,198 tourists, is the largest visitor group to this island nation. This wave of discontent has ramifications for Indian expats, particularly qualified doctors, Male’ city professionals, Malayali nurses in the healthcare industry, and hospitality workers at various island resorts. Notably, a dozen resorts are owned by Indian hospitality corporations, with Tata’s Taj Group holding two facilities. Since 1974, the State Bank of India has played an important role in the Maldives, providing essential financing for resorts, assisting with marine product exports, and supporting local commercial endeavors.In terms of trade, the volume reaches USD 501.82 million, with exports of USD 495.40 million and imports of USD 6.42 million.India and the Maldives’ connection extends across a variety of areas, including finance, healthcare, hospitality, and trade. The continued discontent creates issues that go beyond tourism, potentially affecting the lives of expats, businesses, and crucial commercial partnerships between the two countries.

China’s Rising Influence, Debt Concerns, and the Geopolitical Tug-of-War with India

The geopolitical landscape in the Maldives has taken a complex turn as China asserts its influence in the island nation. Currently holding a substantial 37% share of the Maldives’ total debt, concerns are rising that the recently signed Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between Maldives and China could exacerbate the debt situation, potentially leading to a crisis akin to that experienced by Sri Lanka. Against the backdrop of a diplomatic dispute with India, Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu, during his state visit to China, signed 20 significant agreements, including one on tourism cooperation with President Xi Jinping. Adding to the tension, President Muizzu has called for the withdrawal of Indian troops from the Maldives by March 15. Moreover, the election of a pro-India opposition candidate as the new mayor of Male, a position previously held by President Muizzu, highlights the growing geopolitical rivalry between India and China in the Maldives, marking the archipelago as a contentious hotspot with intriguing twists and turns.

Reconciliation Efforts: Rebuilding Relationships, Economic Interdependence, and Future Directions

Historically, we should lay aside our emotions and focus on covertly pulling the levers of influence. The unanticipated and hysterical protests on social media has caused the Maldives to seek alternatives from India while also severing long-standing connections. The groundswell of public support must be taken into account, and India must respond responsibly. Despite the 2020 Galwan episodes, trade connections between India and China have increased rapidly. Despite India’s succession of steps to block strategic investments from China, such as banning Chinese apps and introducing PLI schemes to emerge as an alternate supply chain, the CCP ensured that economic links remained unaltered. Taiwan, an island republic facing the existential threat of being annexed by China, has made investments in the mainland. Despite decades of antagonism between China and Japan, China has become Japan’s greatest trading partner and one of the top investment destinations for Japanese enterprises.

Trade and investment links between the countries must be recovered while maintaining a delicate balance. India’s foreign policy should focus on backing pro-India parties, emphasizing the mutual benefits of close proximity as well as India’s soft help for upgrading island infrastructure.It is time for India to strengthen its pro-India ties and ensure that Muizzu’s pro-China government continues to take activities that benefit both countries. The historical context, which includes the island’s rescue from an LTTE coup attempt in 1988 and essential water supply assistance during a drought in 2014, emphasizes the importance of this connection. Finding common ground and cultivating these relationships is critical to both countries’ growth and stability. In the long run, both countries’ tourism sectors will benefit from one another through cooperation rather than competition.

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