It was hardly the worst provocation in the world: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sitting in a chair on a sandy beach, saying how much he enjoyed his morning stroll. Yet within moments, it had sparked an international incident recalling the Bay of Pigs.
To summarise: some Maldivian politicians took exception to Modi’s tourist snap and made rude comments about him and about Indians in general. The Maldives’ recently elected president, Mohamed Muizzu, suspended them. Indian celebrities pledged to boycott the Maldives and one major travel agent stopped booking trips to the archipelago. The chances are that the spat will blow over as quickly as a mid-afternoon tropical shower, but it illustrates a few interesting trends.
The first is that Indian Ocean countries feel they need to push back against the country’s growing regional influence. For the Maldives, this means playing India off against China, with new president Muizzu openly campaigning on an anti-India ticket and agitating for greater independence from its huge northern neighbour. At the same time, since 25 per cent of the Maldives’ economy ($3 billion) relies upon tourism, and since Indians make up the largest part of that, he can’t afford to alienate their visitors. Hence slapping down his own party members.
Modi, for his part, is an unashamed nationalist and will always promote Indian assets, including tourism destinations, whenever possible. And why not? The fact that the Lakshadweep islands receive just 10,000 visitors a year compared with 1.7 million to the Maldives makes the debate symbolic rather than economic. The overall Indian tourism industry is forecast to exceed $23 billion in 2024 and reach almost $35 billion within five years. With this level of growth, the Maldives can look forward to boom times for years to come, whether or not the Lakshadweep islands throw up a few five-star resorts. Indians venturing overseas enjoy Mauritius, Thailand and Dubai, but the Maldives is closer, more relaxing and the food is typically fantastic.
The geopolitical trend is more serious and concerning, since China has become more belligerent, in the South China Sea and elsewhere, challenging India on its own borders and in relation to Pakistan. If President Muizzu were to invite the Chinese military into the Maldives, that could change the whole diplomatic balance of the Indian Ocean. Visitors to the Maldives are struck by the tranquillity and beauty of the islands, by the fabulous marine life which swirls beneath resort verandas and the gentle, welcoming nature of the local population. Somehow, these paradise-like islands also manage to harbour simmering tensions which occasionally erupt into violence, thanks to high unemployment and a widespread drugs culture. Hindu-Muslim divisions have widened in recent years, giving some Maldivians a reason to oppose Indian influence.
Dinesh Dhamija founded, built and sold online travel agency ebookers, before serving as a Member of the European Parliament. His latest book, The Indian Century, will be out soon.