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Modi’s Maiden Foreign Visit: Consolidating Bharat for Bhutan Relations

Smruti S. Pattanaik is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • June 18, 2014

    Prime Minister Modi’s decision to make Bhutan as his first foreign destination after becoming Prime Minister signals a significant shift in India’s neighbourhood policy. Often, neighbourhood escapes high profile visit as India’s attention remains diverted to broader foreign policy issues involving other major powers. This shift has two important dimensions which need to be kept in mind while analysing broader parameter of India’s engagement with its neighbours. First, it signals that the neighbourhood is going to be extremely important as a part of initiative to chart economic development and bolster internal security. Second, choosing Bhutan as his first destination underlines that India acknowledges its solid friendship with Bhutan which has significantly cooperated in the counter insurgency initiative by denying space to the Indian insurgent groups in the past. Bhutan’s relationship with India in this context is truly all weather. It is not characterized by the usual anti-Indianism which the elites in neighbouring countries use to make political business nor has Bhutan ever adopted a balance-India policy by engaging China. To quote King Jigme Keshar Namgyel Wangchuk who during his visit to India in 2009 said that Bhutan is ‘mindful of India’s interest’. Bhutan has been India’s outstanding friend in the region and has effectively engaged India in harnessing its water resources and partnered it in other developmental activities. Justifying his choice of Bhutan Modi said, “Bhutan as the destination for my first visit abroad as Prime Minister is a natural choice. Relations with Bhutan will be a key foreign policy priority of my government.”

    Bhutan is a new entrant to democracy. India has shared close relationship with the monarchy and there is a continuity of the warmth in the relations after political transition. The introduction of a bi-party system and installation of Jigme Keshar Namgyel Wangchuk as the new Monarch also signifies a generational change in Bhutan. Bhutan has adopted a bi-party system and a constitutional Monarchy. This is the only country where Monarchy willingly gave up power and prepared the country for democratic transition with his guidance and perseverance.

    The India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty, which was redrafted and signed in 2007, set the bilateral relations on a new course signifying the two countries’ mutual trust. Speaking on the treaty’s significance the former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had noted, “It has laid the basis for a relationship that is responsive to each other’s national interests, a relationship that is consultative, and a relationship that ensures mutually beneficial cooperation”. This treaty does not have the imperial trapping like the previous 1949 treaty. India’s relations with Bhutan represent a synergy that takes an entire gamut of relations, i.e. foreign policy, security and economic cooperation. Bhutan which followed an isolationist policy for a very longtime became the member of United Nations with India’s support in 1971. India has been a significant development partner of Bhutan. Among India’s South Asian neighbours, this country remains an example of bilateralism in the neighbourhood. India from time to time has supported Bhutan’s developmental effort. It remains its largest trading partner. In June last year India provided Rs 700 crore standby credit Facility to overcome its rupee liquidity crunch. Government of India also reimburses the excise duty paid by Bhutan to buy manufactured good from India. India is funding three projects in Bhutan: Punatsangchhu-I (60 percent loan and 40 per cent grant, scheduled for completion in 2016); Punatsangchhu-II (70 per cent loan and 40 per cent grant, schedule for completion in 2017); Mangdechhu (70 per cent grant and 30 per cent loan, schedule for completion in 2016). Five more Hydro Electricity projects are proposed; i.e. Sankosh, Chamkharchu, Bunakha, Kholongchhu and Wangchu as a part of government’s commitment to generate 10000 MW of electricity by 2020.

    Making a linkage between Bhutan’s prosperity and happiness with India and also underlining on how a good neighbour is intrinsic to contentment within a country, Modi said, “having a good friend like India” is one of the parameters of Bhutan Gross National Happiness. India for the past few years and especially after 2000 has made constant effort to reach out to its neighbours by funding infrastructure projects to improve connectivity between India and its others neighbours in South Asia. It has already announced zero duty access for the least developed countries in the SAARC region. India’s approach to security in the neighbourhood is now combined with doses of economic aid and its sensitive list is constantly getting pruned. Emphasing on the policy that would give neighbourhood a stake in India’s economic development, Prime Minister Modi in his address to the Joint Session of Bhutan’s Parliament emphasized that the “SAARC countries, would benefit if India is prosperous. Only a strong, prosperous India can help alleviate the problems that its neighbours face”. India emphasized on country to country relations rather than government to government links signaling there would not be any major foreign policy change towards Bhutan. Already committed to partially fund the 11th Five Year Plan of Bhutan, Prime Minister Modi has promised opening of 20 e-libraries in 20 districts of Bhutan and double the Nehru-Wangchuk scholarship initiated in 2009 from the present 27, that is funds higher studies foor the Bhutanese students.

    Modi’s visit to Bhutan is politically significant. After inviting SAARC leaders to his swearing in ceremony; his choice of Bhutan as the first country came as no surprise. Bhutan is also the only country where the bilateral relationship is free from tension. Expectations from each other are also easy to attain. Modi, after assuming power has emphasized internal security would be a major concern. Considering Bhutan’s help in the past to flush out militants from the North East, it remains a significant partner in attaining internal stability. Moreover, lately there has been attempt by china to woo Bhutan and reportedly China has been wanting exchange 495 square kilometer of territory in Bayul Pasamlung and Jakarlung in Bhutan’s North (Bumthag) for 269 square kilometer of land in the Western border adjacent to Sikkim and siliguri in the tri-junction area of India, Bhutan and China a package deal. China has been laying claim to Doklam Plateau which is adjacent to strategic Chumbi valley. This is likely to affect India’s own boundary talks with China. This remains an important concern for India. Apart from this, China is also trying to open a consulate and follow a similar approach as it has in Nepal to undermine India’s prominence as a development partner in the Himalayan country. Unlike Nepal, Bhutan has resisted to use China card to balance India.

    India needs to earnestly complete some of the projects that have already been delayed due to lack of sufficient fund. Bhutan is the only neighbor that can help India in augmenting internal stability and external security. The short-sighted policy of cutting fuel subsidy, just before the elections in Bhutan, did much harm to India’s old age relations with Bhutan. India needs to pursue its relations with Bhutan without strong arms tactics and should remain committed to a relationship of partnership which will help the “Bharat and Bhutan are made for each other” paradigm to consolidate and fructify for the benefit of the two countries.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.