By Manish Anand
New Delhi, January 8: On a day when Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu embarked on his maiden China visit, the major travel portal, Ease My Trip, lent its might to amplify the ‘Boycott Maldives’ call on the social media platforms. The hyperbole social media influencers are amplifying the tales of ‘Operation Cactus’ while Male seeks to raise a few punches above its weight in relations with India.
Nishant Pitti, the CEO of EaseMytrip, sought to give his punch to the nosediving India-Maldives relations by announcing suspension of travel bookings to Male. He posted on the social media platform X, “In solidarity with our nation, EaseMyTrip has suspended all flight bookings to Maldives”. He used several hashtags in his post to spotlight Lakshadweep and Incredible India campaign. Incidentally, New Delhi-based EaseMyTrip is India’s one of the fastest growing travel booking portal.
The battle of beaches in the wake of the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Lakshadweep last week during which he exhorted the people to explore the group of islands close to Kerala is now inviting global attention. The Associated Press in a report spotlighted that India is the mainstay of the tourism industry in Maldives. It also claimed that there exists the military presence of India in Maldives, which operates a couple of helicopters for rescue missions.
The mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party Global Times too has commented on the toughening of the Indian stance against Male in the wake of Muizzu choosing Beijing for his first bilateral visit. The daily advised India to adopt a pragmatic stance for Male, saying: “In the development of relations between China and the Maldives, there is no requirement for the Maldives to sour relations with India or any other country, without exclusivity and without involving third-party conditions.”
But the diplomatic circle is abuzz that pro-China Muizzu may allow Beijing to use its soil and waters for the military purposes of Beijing. Muizzu in an interview to BBC recently refused to give a direct answer to a question on allowing China a base in Maldives. He told the British broadcaster that Maldives will not allow “any country to establish military bases” in his country.
But the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China in a statement ahead of Muizzu’s visit said: “We believe that during the visit, President Xi (Jinping) and President Muizzu will chart the course for bilateral relations from a strategic level and elevate the relations to a new height.”
China is already invested in Maldives with Belt and Road Initiative. The political ecosystem of Maldives is vertically split in two contrasting camps, one associating with India and the other with China. Maldives has sought to exploit the India and China rivalry by gaining from the development assistance flow.
Ahead of Muizzu visit to Beijing, the Chinese embassy in Male spotlighted the BRI offspring in Maldives – the 2-km long China-Maldives Friendship Bridge and the expansion of Velana International Airport. India on the other hand has funded massive development projects which directly impact the lives of the people by assisting constructions of hospitals, schools, colleges, and other facilities. Besides, hundreds of Maldivian administrative officials train in India on a routine basis.
The Opposition leaders in Maldives have asked the government to protect the economic interests by fostering good relations with all. While the social media users have turned their focus on tourism, the strategic thinkers are weighing the extent of Indian patience to Muizzu’s courting of China to waters too close to India’s comforts. It may be recalled that only a handful of militants who had taken out from Sri Lanka had captured Male. Late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had ordered ‘Operation Cactus’ to free Maldives from militants, and since then India remains central to the security of Male.