Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom has pledged during a visit to India that the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) will repair strained relations between the two countries should it come to power in September, local media has reported.
The three day visit, which concluded Thursday (June 6), saw the former president meet with dignitaries including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to discuss bilateral relations and the impact of the Maldives government’s decision to last year cancel a US$511 million airport deal with India-based infrastructure giant GMR.
In interviews with Indian media, Gayoom expressed sadness that the Maldives’ relationship with India had been impacted by President Dr Mohamed Waheed’s administration deciding to evict GMR from the country with seven days notice.
Gayoom blamed Nasheed for not obtaining parliamentary approval and “consulting all political parties” before signing the deal with the GMR-Malaysian Airports consortium.
“This was a mistake. Had he consulted all political parties, the public would not have formed the impression that corruption had taken place. Then we told the next President Mr Waheed that he should hold discussions with the GMR Group and the Indian government to arrive at an acceptable solution, after which the government was free to act on its own. Unfortunately, this was not done and suddenly there was this unhappy ending,” Gayoom was reported as saying in the Hindu.
Waheed’s government late last year declared the contract between GMR and the Nasheed government, which was vetted by the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC), as ‘void ad initio’, or invalid from the outset. It is currently disputing its obligation to compensate the company in arbitration proceedings, arguing that the termination clause could not be applied to a contract it had deemed invalid.
Gayoom told Indian media that former President Mohamed Nasheed – whose government was controversially replaced in February last year – had to take the majority of blame for the GMR contract dispute, despite not being in office at the time of its cancellation.
“The GMR experience was not a very good one for us. It began badly with [Nasheed] not informing parliament,” Gayoom was reported as saying in the Indian Express.
“By law, he should have had it passed by parliament. Some may even say it had an illegal beginning. [The cancellation] was a very populist move at the time as the public had a perception that the contract was bad for the country. The way it was handled was not good. I am sad that this has somehow affected our bilateral relations. We want to overcome that and restore our relationship with India to its former level,” Gayoom told the paper.
The government’s sudden eviction of the Indian investor did not however appear on a list of 11 grievances handed to all senior Maldivian reporters by the Indian High Commission in January, which instead included concerns such as discrimination against Indian expatriates and the confiscation of passports by Maldivian employers.
The list’s release was followed by the Indian High Commission issuing a statement in early February slamming local media in the Maldives for “misrepresentation and twisting of issues”.
Gayoom nonetheless told the Hindustan Times publication this week that he would endeavor to maintain strong bilateral relations with India, claiming that people who were “anti-GMR” were not “anti-India”.
The PPM is presently part of the coalition government backing President Waheed, whom Gayoom said had been requested to find an “acceptable solution” for both GMR and the Indian government that addressed concerns about the airport deal.
Among the most fierce critics of the GMR airport deal before its cancellation last year were the now government-aligned Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP ), led by President Waheed’s Special Advisor Dr Hassan Saeed.
Saeed in November last year appealed to Prime Minister Singh to terminate the GMR deal, writing that “GMR and India ‘bashing’ is becoming popular politics”.
While in opposition in December 2011, the DQP also released a 24 page pamphlet alleging that allowing GMR to develop Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) was “paving the way for the enslavement of Maldivians in our beloved land”, and warning that “Indian people are especially devious”.
Former Home Minister Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed, the DQP’s Deputy Leader at the time of the pamphlet’s publication, was recently unveiled as the running mate of PPM Presidential candidate Abdulla Yameen – Gayoom’s half brother.
SOFA a concern: Gayoom
Gayoom – described in the Hindu as a “sprightly 76 year-old” – also expressed concern about the Status of Forces (SOFA) agreement being negotiated between Waheed’s government and the United States.
“I am not happy. I didn’t want that to happen,” he said, warning that such a move risked upsetting the balance of power in the Indian Ocean.
A source within the PPM said former President Gayoom, during his 30 years as head of state had forged strong relations with various regional powers such as India and Sri Lanka.
The source said that while the handling of the GMR contract remained a controversial issue, the recent strain in the relationship between India and the Maldives was the result of a number of factors, including “certain difficulties” facing expatriate workers from India living in the country.
“We have a large number of professional expatriates from India working here in health, education and accountancy. The [Indian] embassy here in Male’ has aired some of the issues with us,” the party source claimed, adding that the Maldives also had grievances over obtaining visas to travel to India that needed to be resolved.
The party official claimed that Indian authorities had raised these issues not only with the PPM, but all other stakeholders both in government and the country’s political opposition, presently represented by the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).
Highs and lows
Despite admitting that every country has high and lows in their bilateral relations with neighbours, Indian High Commissioner to the Maldives Rajeev Shahare has previously emphasised what he called the country’s “unshakable” long-standing relationship with the Maldives.
“During my tenure, I will endeavour to further strengthen the relationship between India and the Maldives, which is already very strong with an unshakable foundation,” he said on April 10, shortly after his appointment.