Damaging and Disingenuous: Evaluating the ‘India Out’ Campaign in Maldives
Meeting supporters at an event in Naifaru, Maldives, in March 2022, former President Abdula Yameen Abdul Gayoom made a striking statement with his choice of attire. Emblazoned on the front of his T-shirt were the words “India Out,” a slogan Yameen had introduced into Maldives’ political lexicon shortly after his exoneration and release in late 2021 from a money-laundering conviction. Yameen and his opposition coalition, comprising the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and People’s National Congress (PNC), have rallied under this slogan, contending that the current Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) government, led by President Ibrahim Solih, is jeopardizing Maldives’ autonomy through an “India-First” foreign policy and alleged openness to hosting an Indian military presence.
Yameen has since been convicted of a separate money laundering charge, and is once again imprisoned, serving an 11-year sentence, casting the viability of his presidential candidature into doubt, even after securing his party’s nomination. Yet “India Out” rhetoric continues to feature prominently in the opposition’s campaigns — most recently in response to an official visit by the Indian Defense Minister Ranjath Singh — despite government actions to ban the movement.
While the government’s moves to proscribe the campaign are arguably overzealous and undemocratic, the movement itself is problematic for several reasons. Not only does it threaten Maldives’ relations with its most powerful neighboring country, but it also fuels xenophobia against Indian nationals. Moreover, it is insincere, and appears designed to exploit nationalist sentiment in the upcoming September presidential elections. This is evidenced by the often-overlooked facts that during his presidency Yameen himself officially maintained an “India First” foreign policy, and that despite his reputation as more diplomatically aligned with India’s rival, China, he was reluctant to irreparably damage ties with New Delhi.
Historically, Maldives has recognized the economic and security benefits of strong ties with its much larger neighbor. Notably, India has often been a first responder during Maldives’ security and humanitarian crises. Examples include its military intervention to suppress a foreign-mercenary backed coup attempt in November 1988, and its relief contributions following the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, a water crisis in 2014, and the COVID-19 pandemic from 2020 onward.
India’s involvement in Maldives and throughout the wider region is not purely altruistic. Throughout its independent history, India has asserted its primacy over South Asia, a tradition continued by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Neighborhood First” foreign policy. Moreover, India has been known to use coercive pressure to enforce its will over weaker neighbors. For instance, in 2015, Kathmandu accused India of enforcing a harsh blockade in response to Nepal’s constitutional amendments, which India found unfavorable.
In the maritime sphere, a growing rivalry with China prompts India to guard against Beijing’s expanding naval presence in the Indian Ocean. Accordingly, New Delhi operates a military base in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and seeks additional basing arrangements in Indian Ocean Island nations like Mauritius and Seychelles. It also seeks to strengthen its influence over its immediate island neighbors, Sri Lanka and Maldives.
For these smaller neighbors of India, it remains a significant challenge to strike a balance between maintaining favorable relations with India and preserving autonomy. Ideally, this balance is achieved through reasoned dialogue. However, much like the slogan it revolves around, the “India Out” movement is crude and provocative.
This was starkly displayed in June 2022 when a violent mob waving flags distributed at PPM party headquarters descended upon Yoga Day celebrations in Maldives’ national football stadium, at an event organized by the Indian High Commission. Prominent PPM activists have also threatened attacks and protests against the Indian High Commission. Regardless of the underlying motivations, such actions are incendiary and harmful to bilateral ties.
The opposition’s specific objections center on initiatives that allow for the alleged stationing of Indian military personnel in Maldives. These initiatives include the construction of a dockyard at Uthuru Thilafalhu (UTF), which the opposition claims is intended to serve as an Indian military base, and the government’s renewal of a contract for two Indian-leased Dornier aircraft. These aircraft, used for search and rescue missions and EEZ surveillance, are exclusively operated by Indian personnel, with no Maldivians yet trained to operate them — an arrangement that admittedly invites scrutiny.
However, the opposition tends to overlook the fact that a naval military base in a country as geographically close to India as Maldives provides minimal strategic value. This is particularly evident when compared to India’s efforts to secure bases in more distant countries like Mauritius and Seychelles, China’s facility in Djibouti, or the U.S military base in Diego Garcia, all of which are significantly remote from their respective mainland territories and would help extend power projection or maintain supply lines. More crucially, they also skim over the fact that the groundwork for the UTF dockyard and the acquisition of the Dornier aircraft was laid during Yameen’s administration.
While it is true that Yameen sought to cancel the Dornier lease and remove Indian personnel, he made these attempts during the tail end of his administration amid a political crisis. This crisis erupted following a state of emergency declared in February 2018 in response to a Supreme Court order to release all political prisoners. While Yameen successfully coerced the court into overturning this order, as his political control over the country waned — culminating in an unsuccessful re-election bid — he turned to nationalism to bolster his political standing. Such tactics shed light on the underlying motivations and sincerity behind the current “India Out” campaign.
The President and The Candidate.
A stark contrast emerges when comparing Yameen’s current campaign rhetoric with his actions as president. At the aforementioned Naifaru campaign rally, Yameen asserted that he intends to cancel all “defense deals” with India. Presumably, this includes the Defense Cooperation Framework with India, which he endorsed as president in April 2016. It is under the terms of this deal that construction for the UTF dockyard proceeds under the present administration.
Further emphasizing this contrast, Yameen chose New Delhi for his first official visit upon assuming the presidency, and welcomed Indian assistance during a water crisis in 2014. Moreover, throughout his tenure, Yameen maintained an “India First” foreign policy, in spite of his current objections to the present administration’s positive attitude toward India.
It is true that India-Maldives relations experienced turbulence during Yameen’s administration. However, well aware that his close commercial ties with Beijing — including participation in the Belt and Road Initiative and attempts to enter a free trade agreement with China — stirred unease in India, he made concerted efforts to mend these ties. He even went as far as to urge local media not to indulge in anti-India sentiments. In 2017 Yameen “reaffirmed that India is the Maldives’ closest ally and friend“, a far cry from his more recent statements about India.
In reality, no Maldivian administration, including a Yameen administration, would risk halting infrastructure projects or losing consular, financial, and development assistance by severing all ties with India. They would also not lose sight of the fact that Maldives, one of the world’s most climate and disaster-vulnerable countries, consistently requires India’s assistance. The size, proximity, and regional position of India are not easily compensated for by any other country, including China.
Given this context and considering Yameen’s own history, if he successfully appeals his conviction and then garners enough popular support to reclaim the presidency, it is unlikely that “India Out” will feature in his rhetoric or, indeed, his wardrobe. If Yameen or an alternate PPM candidate assumes office this year, a likely first order of business would be to replace hypernationalism with diplomatic tact in an effort to mend the damage done to India-Maldives through an ill-conceived “India Out” campaign. How India responds to such overtures, however, would be at their discretion.