Tensions between India and the Maldives have dramatically escalated in recent days after Maldivian officials made disparaging remarks about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The ensuing backlash has now spilled over into tourism and trade between the two countries.
Maldivian Officials Suspended Over “Insulting” Tweets
Last week, Maldivian Finance Minister Ibrahim Ameer and two other top officials were suspended by President Ibrahim Muizzu after their tweets mocking PM Modi sparked outrage in India.
Ameer had called Modi an “India puppet” and likened him to a clown. Parliamentary Secretary Mohamed Hussain Shareef described Modi as a “terrorist”, while the island nation’s Auditor General Hassan Ziyath made remarks seen as disrespectful.
The Maldives Foreign Ministry said the comments were against diplomatic protocol and did not reflect official policy. President Muizzu telephoned PM Modi to assure India-Maldives ties would remain strong.
- Finance Minister Ibrahim Ameer
- Parliamentary Secretary Mohamed Hussain Shareef
- Auditor General Hassan Ziyath
But the damage was already done. #MaldivesInsultsIndia trended for days, inflaming public opinion. Lakshadweep Administrator Praful Khoda Patel accused the Maldives leadership of lacking “etiquette and culture”.
India Tourism Industry Calls for Boycott
Angry Indian travel operators reacted by suspending bookings to the Maldives. India’s largest online travel agency MakeMyTrip stopped selling Maldives packages, estimating a $250 million hit.
Bollywood celebrities cancelled Maldives shoots in solidarity. Actor Ranveer Singh and others were trolled for recent Maldives vacations after publicly supporting a boycott.
India Tourism Impact:
- MakeMyTrip suspends Maldives bookings, estimates $250M losses
- Indian celebrities face backlash over Maldives trips
- Film shoots shifted from Maldives to Lakshadweep
The travel industry argues India singlehandedly revived Maldives tourism during COVID-19. Over 600,000 Indians visited in 2022 – the largest contingent by far. Tourism accounts for 28% of Maldivian GDP.
Maldives travel entities acknowledged their economy’s dependence on India. The global narrative shifted to whether mass cancellations could destabilise the island economy.
Traders Association Joins Boycott Call
The Maldives-India Row Escalates association called for sweeping import bans on Maldives products. They cited the need to reduce India’s yearly $200 million trade deficit due to reliance on Maldives tuna, coconuts, dates and bananas.
Fish exporters in Maldives registered concern, but stated they could divert produce to East Asian markets.
India Trade With Maldives:
- $200 million annual trade deficit
- Major imports - Tuna, coconuts, dates, bananas
- Fish rerouted to East Asia, effects uncertain
China Angling to Step Into Void
The Maldives foreign ministry is reaching out to ease tensions before India’s assistance is withdrawn. Economy experts theorize that estrangement from India will push Maldives firmly into a Chinese orbit.
Reports suggest Chinese operators could gain infrastructure contracts forfeited by Indian firms. President Muizzu also announced expanded cooperation in Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt & Road Initiative development strategy.
Potential China Role:
- Infrastructure contracts
- Expanded participation in Belt & Road Initiative
This aligns with concerns India will lose ground to strategic rival China in the Indian Ocean region. Experts argue Chinese debt traps could erode Maldivian sovereignty. India has provided over $2 billion to Maldives since 1988 without accrued interest loans.
Muizzu Seeks Damage Control
Conceding diplomatic missteps, President Muizzu personally spoke with PM Modi and proposed an India visit to smoothen ruffled feathers. Muizzu committed to nurturing bilateral ties rooted in “time-tested relationship between neighbors”.
Backchannel talks are ongoing between national security advisors. State TV withdrew programming critical of Modi.
Maldives Mollifying Efforts:
- Muizzu calls Modi, offers reconciliatory India visit
- National Security Advisor talks
- State TV pulls anti-Modi content
This furthers speculation that Maldives risks angering India at its own peril, despite opportunities from more expansive Chinese inroads. India remains first responder for Maldives defense and disaster relief needs.
However Indian media suggests that with PM Modi’s standing paramount domestically, only unequivocal official contrition could fully arrest the unravelling of ties.
Conclusion: High Stakes Diplomatic Crisis
In summary, outrage over derogatory tweets has triggered an India-Maldives rupture severely impacting travel and trade. Attempted course correction by President Muizzu may fall short if China fills voids left by withdrawing Indian tourists and businesses.
With nationalist sentiments at fever pitch in India ahead of 2024 general elections, PM Modi risks looking weak if accepting reconciliation before the Maldives takes tangible accountability actions. The Maldives must also manage its dependence on Indian largesse and goodwill if its economy is to avoid free-fall.
The next few weeks will prove critical if the functional India-Maldives relationship is to be salvaged from this self-inflicted crisis precipitated by the damaging conduct of senior Maldivian ministers.
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