Narendra Modi’s photographs from the tranquil shores of the Lakshadweep archipelago have inadvertently stirred tensions in the Maldives, laying bare the fault lines in the closely-knit relationship between the two nations, particularly under Malé’s new president with a proclivity towards China.
The visuals captured during his recent sojourn to the minuscule Indian Ocean outpost showcased an aspect of the Indian Prime Minister seldom revealed – Modi strolling on sun-drenched ivory beaches and snorkeling in the turquoise-blue waters surrounding the island.
Evidently an endeavor to boost domestic tourism, Modi expressed being “in awe of the stunning beauty of its islands” and fervently recommended Lakshadweep as a must-visit destination, omitting any mention of other countries in his posts.
However, as many suggested that Lakshadweep could be India’s equivalent of the Maldives, comparisons swiftly descended into a virtual skirmish.
This has precipitated a full-blown diplomatic crisis between the two neighbors, already on tenterhooks since the China-leaning Maldivian President, Mohamed Muizzu, assumed office last year, advocating for the removal of Indian troops and a pivot towards closer ties with Beijing.
Accusations surfaced that Modi intentionally promoted Lakshadweep to undermine the Maldives’ tourism industry, heavily reliant on the sector for economic sustenance, with approximately 200,000 Indians visiting the Maldives annually for vacations.
Tensions escalated when it became known that members of Muizzu’s cabinet were joining the fray, labeling Modi an “economic terrorist” and making xenophobic remarks against him and Indians in general.
The dispute embroiled some of India’s affluent figures, hundreds of whom took to Twitter/X to endorse Lakshadweep. Simultaneously, Indians rebuked Maldivian politicians for their disparaging comments about Modi, calling for a boycott of travel to the nation.
Indian experts contended that Malé had “crossed a line” with personal and racist attacks on Modi, detrimental to their own country’s image.
Three ministers from the archipelago’s Ministry of Youth Empowerment, Information, and Arts went as far as calling Modi a “clown,” a “terrorist,” and a “puppet of Israel” on X, though most of these posts have been subsequently removed.
Malsha Shareef, Mariyam Shiuna, and Abdulla Mahzoom Majid, the ministers leading the onslaught, were promptly suspended by the Maldivian government.
Shiuna, in a now-deleted tweet, disparagingly compared India to cow dung, adding, “What a clown. The puppet of Israel, Mr. Narendra diver with a life jacket.”
The Maldivian foreign ministry distanced itself from these ministers’ comments, asserting they were personal opinions and did not reflect the government’s stance.
While the Indian foreign ministry has yet to respond, it summoned the Maldives envoy to India over the remarks.
Harsh V Pant, Vice President for Studies and Foreign Policy at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi, remarked that the incident gained traction due to the perception that Muizzu’s new government was inherently anti-India.
The controversy led to Ease My Trip, an Indian travel company, announcing the suspension of all flights and packages to the Maldives, endorsing Lakshadweep instead. The CEO, Prashant Pitti, revealed this decision would impact 240,000 annual bookings.
Former Maldives President Ibrahim Solih, considered pro-India, emphasized maintaining the longstanding friendship between the two countries, despite the insensitive remarks.
Muizzu met Modi at the Cop28 summit in Dubai, urging the withdrawal of all Indian troops from the Maldives. India maintains a small contingent of 75 military personnel in the archipelago for maritime rescue and surveillance.
This dispute coincides with Muizzu’s visit to China, interpreted as a diplomatic snub to India and a departure from the tradition of previous Maldivian leaders visiting India first after taking office.
India and China have significant investments in the Maldives, with Malé becoming part of China’s “Belt and Road” initiative in 2014, aiming to expand trade and influence across Asia, Africa, and Europe.
Pant suggested that Muizzu, despite not making explicit anti-India comments, is signaling a shift in alliances through visits to China and pressuring India to remove troops.
Lakshadweep, a relatively undeveloped chain of tropical islands off India’s southwestern coast, mandates a special permit for entry, even for Indian nationals. Comprising 36 islands, it is renowned for pristine coral reefs, crystal-clear waters, and diverse marine wildlife.
In contrast, the Maldives boasts a larger land area, more islands, a higher population, and superior infrastructure. Tourism constitutes nearly 28% of the Maldives’ GDP, with Indian nationals comprising the largest group of foreign visitors in 2023. This surge is partly attributed to the popularity of the Maldives among Bollywood celebrities.
The saga highlights the delicate interplay between geopolitics and tourism, underscoring the need for diplomatic finesse in an interconnected world.