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Abdulla Shahid’s Election As UNGA President: Victory For Maldives-India Diplomatic Cooperation – Analysis

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By N Sathiya Moorthy

The election of Maldives’ Foreign Minister, Abdulla Shahid, as the 76th President of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) could not have come at a better time for the island nation. Shahid commences his year-long term in September, and his elevation, it is hoped, can change the archipelago-nation’s standing in the international community, particularly as the global body is otherwise considered to be a club for rich and powerful nations, of which Maldives is not one.

Thus, in yet another moment of glory for Maldives, Minister Shahid as the UNGA President-elect brings with him vast and varied experience as the Foreign Minister under two regimes— Presidents Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (2007-08), and now under President Solih, since 2018. In between, he was the maiden Speaker of the first ‘democratic Parliament’ of Maldives, representing defeated President Gayoom’s Dhivehi Rayathunge Party (DRP), since renamed as Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), during the tumultuous transition to democracy, from 2008-14.

Shahid joined the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) on the eve of the 2013 presidential polls, which was won by PPM nominee Abdulla Yameen, now under house arrest  due to a massive corruption case. All this has given Shahid the kind of experience and exposure in managing conflicts, without hurting himself or any other person.

Vaccine equity

By turn, the UNGA presidency should go to the Asia-Pacific region this time. In the election, held on Monday, 7 June, Shahid defeated his only rival, the former Afghan Foreign Minister, Dr Zalmani Rassoul,  by a wide margin—143-48—in a total of 191 votes, with no abstentions. It works out to a two-thirds vote for Shahid. This, by itself, does not mean anything in Shahid’s daily conduct of the UNGA business, but it also underlines the global goodwill and endorsement for the President-elect, his government, and nation.

In his acceptance speech after the results were declared, Shahid said that managing the global COVID-19 pandemic would be his first priority as the UNGA chair. “No one is safe until everyone is safe,” he declared, underlining the reality of the rich-poor divide in terms of nations and individuals. In context, he stressed the importance of what he termed as ‘vaccine equity’. Building on existing initiatives and approaches, “I will be looking to address the health of our people and our economies,” Shahid said.

As UNGA President, Shahid said he would also work towards ensuring that the youth get their voices heard in the General Assembly. Committing to work towards gender equality, he reiterated his “pledge” at the Interactive Dialogue—the three-hour long informal interview of the contesting candidates by a full House—held a few days prior to the election. “As President of the General Assembly, I will not participate in any panels that are not gender balanced,” he had said on the occasion.

Shahid’s acceptance speech was true to form and his own personality. Last year, then UNGA President, Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, had hailed Shahid’s speech as Foreign Minister, when Maldives backed the UN initiatives on ‘sustainable development goals’ (SDGs) aimed towards building ‘resilient communities’. Appearing in the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC), the UN’s human rights affiliate at Geneva, the previous year, Minister Shahid highlighted the ‘democratic changes’ that the election of President Mohamed Ibrahim Solih in 2018 meant for his nation.

Likewise, at the Second High-Level UN Conference on South-South Cooperation (BAPA+40), at Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2019, Minister Shahid made the right pitch once again, by stressing the need to further ‘South-South cooperation’. There is no denying the contributions of a consistent Maldivian position on issues of great global importance, had played a role in the world wanting to see Minister Shahid and his nation chair the UNGA, that too while the pandemic is wreaking  havoc on nations, economies and individuals alike.

Victory for Solih

Maldives is only the sixth country from the group of ‘Small Island Developing States’ (SIDS) to chair the UNGA in 76 annual change-overs. For a tiny nation whose only fame in the global arena thus far is its popular global campaigns on increasing ocean levels and consequent climate issues, Maldives took the bold step to contest the UNGA presidency for the first time now.

In a way, it helped the Shahid candidacy that Maldives had delayed entering the international arena thus far. Afghanistan had held the post once earlier, back in 1966-67. That was soon after Maldives had acquired independence in June 1965 and joined the UN system, three months later, in September. Global nations take note also of such gaps while voting.

In a way, Shahid dedicated the Maldivian decision to enter the fray, his choice and election, to President Solih, who is otherwise considered a weakling in domestic politics. “Thank you so much President for nominating me for this election to represent Maldives, and for your trust and confidence in me,” he said in a respond-tweet. “This is truly an honour for entire Maldives, and I am proud to accept this honour on behalf of our citizens,” the tweet added.

Earlier, President Solih was quick to take to Twitter to congratulate his diplomat-in-chief. Extending his ‘warm congratulations’ to his Foreign Minister, he said, “This is a great honour for Maldives, and I have no doubt Minister Shahid will do us all proud as UNGA President.”

In his tweet from Germany, where he is convalescing after multiple surgeries back home for a blast-wound sustained on 6 May in capital Malé, Maldivian Parliament Speaker Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed congratulated Shahid, and underscored the relevance of Maldives’ size and climate challenges, which he had highlighted through an under-water Cabinet meeting, as President between 2008 and 2012.

“I’m delighted that Maldives has been elected President of the UN General Assembly. It’s a great day for us, for small island states, and for climate vulnerable countries everywhere,” said Nasheed, who also heads the ruling MDP, of which both President Solih and Minister Shahid are members.

Victory for Shahid now is sure to increase Maldives’ visibility globally, and also Solih’s stock alongside. President Solih can use such exposure and acknowledgement before deciding if he should contest for a second term in the presidential polls, due in late 2023. This decision, he is likely to take in the course of Shahid’s UNGA term, though mostly linked to the ongoing pandemic management nearer home.

Given the visible and undeniable strains within the ruling MDP, the UNGA election in a very small way also underscores the constructive role that Minister Shahid can play in domestic politics, and the accompanying  possibilities—provided the UNGA is able to spare him for his nation, occasionally at least, through the coming year that is critical and crucial for both Maldives and the world at large.  Incidentally, there is no compulsion that as UNGA chair, Shahid has to shed his ministership back home. There is also no indication to this effect, thus far.

India’s support to Shahid’s candidacy

India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar was amongst the first international persona to congratulate his counterpart Shahid and neighbouring Maldives. “Heartiest felicitations to Foreign Minister of Maldives @abdulla_shahid on his election as President for 76th UN General Assembly,” wrote Jaishankar in a twitter post. “This is a testimony as much to his own stature as to the standing of Maldives. We look forward to working with him to strengthen multilateralism and its much-needed reforms,” he said further.

As may be recalled, India was also the first nation to endorse Shahid’s candidacy as early as November last year. In Maldives on an official visit, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla publicly reiterated the “commitment made by our External Affairs Minister earlier during the Virtual Meeting with Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid that India will support his candidature”. Secretary Shringla also said that with his “vast diplomatic experience and leadership qualities, Foreign Minister Shahid has the best credentials to preside over the General Assembly in these tumultuous times”.

Maldives had reportedly announced Minister Shahid’s candidacy as early as 2018, not long after President Solih’s election. With no other candidate from the Asia-Pacific region showing up on the horizon even remotely, New Delhi’s decision was both timely and purposeful. As it turned out, Afghanistan announced Dr Rassoul’s candidacy only in January this year. India thus had no hesitation in explaining to another sensitive SAARC friend, how it could not reconsider its decision, New Delhi having waited for months, and with no formal or informal approach made by any other candidate nation.

Between now and September, when Shahid will formally assume the UNGA President’s mantle and chair the first session, he will be busy selecting his team. A senior second-line Indian diplomat already at the office of the nation’s Permanent Representative (PR) at the UN, is reported to be the favourite as President Shahid’s Chef de Cabinet. In a tweet soon after the election, the Indian PR Office at the UN congratulated Shahid for his ‘robust victory’.

Soft power at display

On the bilateral front, India-Maldives relations have suffered a recent setback despite months of multilateral cooperation on multiple developmental projects in the archipelago, under the Solih stewardship. The avoidable controversy over the Indian decision on tourism development, amongst others, in the remote island territory of Lakshadweep, is one irritant.

Almost every Maldivian, especially from the north of the country, has a particular affinity to Minicoy for historic reasons. It is also one Indian island where Dhivehi, Maldives’ native, official language is in use, though by a different name, ‘Mahal’. The current apprehension is also that New Delhi’s plans for Lakshadweep may end up wiping out the language in this part of India without celebrating the ‘shared cultural heritage’. The other India-related issue in Maldives flows from what is possibly a premature New Delhi announcement on opening a consulate in the southern Maldivian town of Addu.

The Opposition critics of the Solih Government, and more so the ‘anti-India’ groups therein, have been vocal in linking the two Indian decisions, to revive what otherwise had become the near-dead ‘India Out’ campaign, from the previous year. This has the potential to strain bilateral ties even more under these circumstances—as existed under the predecessor Government of President Abdulla Yameen—through what is becoming yet another long run-up to the presidential polls in Maldives, due in 2023.

It thus remains to be seen how the ruling government and ruling party in Malé, both utilise the occasion provided by Shahid’s election and India’s silent role in it, to blunt domestic criticism on both fronts. On the reverse side, given the potential impact that the UNGA election can have on domestic politics now, attempts, both veiled and open, could be made to target Solih and Shahid even more.

From a larger ‘neighbourhood’ perspective, Shahid’s election and Maldives’ elevation in the international arena is a silent acknowledgement also of the deployment of India’s soft power at the UN without being an all-important P-5 ‘veto power’, as yet. It is this kind of support that neighbours expect from India, given their own inherent inadequacies in terms of ‘size’ in every respect—but was seen as not being predictable and forthcoming in recent years and decades, unlike earlier.

In the process, during the post-Cold War 21st century global milieu, the world does not see South Asia as the ‘traditional sphere of Indian influence’ anymore. Instead, India’s new friends like the US have been treating the region as an open geopolitical, geostrategic diplomatic space for them to meddle in, at will. The US’s ‘Framework Agreement’ for defence cooperation with Maldives last November is only one of the many in South Asia, where India’s traditional authority got contested, if not neutralised, by a friendly extra-regional power,  which is also the world’s sole super-power at present.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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