It started with a postcard-perfect snapshot. An image of India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, lounging in a chair on a secluded white-sand beach, provoked heated words from officials in the Maldives, a tiny archipelago nation in the Indian Ocean.
Indians on social media reacted with a ferocious wave of indignation, causing ripples all the way to Beijing.
Mr. Modi had been posing for a series of pictures to highlight the beachy natural beauty of the islands called Lakshadweep, an Indian territory 150 miles from the mainland and just 100 miles north of the Maldives.
Lakshadweep is like a mini Maldives, with barely a tenth of the landmass of the more famous atolls to its south. The people on Minicoy, its southernmost island, speak the same language as they do in the Maldives, and preserve some of its oldest customs.
But in Mr. Modi’s seemingly harmless words of praise — morning walks on the beach were “moments of pure bliss” — the Maldives heard a threat. Its about a half-million people are sensitive to feeling pushed around by India, with its population of 1.4 billion.
“What a clown,” Mariyam Shiuna, a deputy minister in the Maldives’ government, wrote on the social media platform X. She accused Mr. Modi of being a “puppet of Israel” and of wearing a lifejacket while pretending to scuba dive. The post was later deleted.
In fact Mr. Modi had been snorkeling — a lifejacket-compatible activity. But he is in fact friendlier with the Israeli government than is popular in the Muslim-majority islands. Other Maldivians used their social media posts to insult Indian tourists and India generally.
The backlash was swift, and by some accounts apparently coordinated. A barrage of posts by high-profile Indians, including government officials and Bollywood stars, blasted simultaneous outrage at the Maldivians. These posts were illustrated with travel-brochure-like images of Lakshadweep, making the competition explicit. (Many of these photographs were actually shot in the Maldives, though.)
On Monday, push came to shove. An Indian travel portal, EaseMyTrip, joined the Indian celebrities in boycotting travel bookings to the Maldives. The Maldivian government finally cried uncle. Ms. Shiuna was suspended from office, along with two other ministers who had joined her in remarks seen as offending India.
Since the 1970s, the Maldives has become one of the global jet set’s preferred resort destinations, earning $3 billion in tourism revenues in 2019, worth about a quarter of its national economy. After coronavirus pandemic-related lockdowns took effect, when outbound Chinese tourism stopped in its tracks, India became the Maldives’ biggest source of high-spending visitors.
India had always kept tinier Lakshadweep under wraps. Until recently its islands saw only 10,000 visitors a year, nearly all of them Indian. In 2021, Mr. Modi’s government indicated that it saw great untapped potential there. If Lakshadweep’s coral-shaped lagoons can be sold to the world as an alternative to the Maldives, they would strike at the small country’s economic lifeblood.
Just as the war of words with India hit fever pitch, with some Indian celebrities swearing they would restrict their luxury vacations to India’s own shores, the Maldives’ new president, Mohamed Muizzu, was starting a five-day state visit in China. His trip was planned much earlier, but rivalries with India were already on the agenda.
The Maldives, like several other countries around South Asia, has for years bobbed along the surface of a great-power competition between India and China. Successive governments have been more pro-China, like Abdulla Yameen’s, from 2013 to 2018, or pro-India, like the one led by Ibrahim Mohamed Solih until November. Mr. Muizzu, who defeated him in the polls, had campaigned on a platform of “India Out.”
Mr. Muizzu had already broken with tradition by skipping visiting India and spending his first state visit in Turkey. So it was little surprise that he chose China for his second state visit. His government also intends to eject the 80 or so Indian military personnel who operate aircraft based in the Maldives.
But Mr. Muizzu’s country and India might want to be careful about escalating the tension further. India has major infrastructure projects underway in the Maldives, which neither side wants to cancel. In suspending Ms. Shiuna and her colleagues, Mr. Muizzu sent a message.
India, for its part, does not want to erode its influence among its smaller neighbors. In the Himalayas, Nepal and Bhutan have made unusually open gestures toward China recently. The importance of keeping allies in its rivalry with China is one reason India has doubled down on its close relationship with Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister of Bangladesh, who is this week claiming her fourth consecutive term in power.
Maahil Mohamed contributed reporting from Malé, Maldives.
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