Bhutan: Beyond Symbolism

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Modi’s Diplomatic Drive: ‘Strong, proactive and sensitive’, is how External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj chose to describe the diplomatic initiatives undertaken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. As the leader of the world’s largest democracy completes six months in office, Diplomatist summarises the main achievements of Modi’s foreign policy.

Many call it a foreign policy coup of sorts, but it was not surprising, in the backdrop of Modi’s election slogans, to find the prime minister-designate inviting the heads of all the seven SAARC nations to attend his government’s inauguration. Why did he do so, and in the process become India’s first prime minister to invite the heads of governments of the neighbouring South Asian nations for the swearing-in of a new government in New Delhi? Well, it clearly indicated that Modi was seeking a stable neighbourhood that would partner Delhi in trade and commerce, cultural pursuits, and, above all, help improve India’s internal security situation by denying anti-India elements and insurgent groups’ sanctuary in their respective nations and engage in subversive activities. The move had another clear message – that the new government would get rid of India’s Pakistan fixation and focus on strengthening relations with Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, and other neighbours in the immediate vicinity and beyond.

Modi’s decision to make his first foreign trip to Bhutan, within three weeks of his assuming office, is more than symbolic. True, Bhutan has been a traditional ally of India, but one must remember six years ago, the Himalayan nation transformed from a monarchy to a parliamentary democracy, with political parties at the helm of affairs. Now, it is the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) that is ruling Bhutan with the 48-year-old Harvard educated Tshering Tobgay as prime minister. Now that the real power is vested with the political class, foreign policy contours also seems set to change. In fact, it did change when the former Bhutanese Prime Minister Jigme Y

Thinley met then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on the sidelines of an environmental summit in Brazil in 2012, a meeting that did not go down well in India.

India has always guided Bhutan’s foreign policy, but things changed quite a bit in 2007 with the two nations amending the 1949 India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty. It gave Bhutan significantly greater freedom in pursuing foreign and defence policies, areas tightly controlled by New Delhi for nearly six decades in accordance with the earlier Treaty. Not only did the amendment signal the arrival of Bhutan’s upcoming democracy, it also opened possibilities of significant, if not drastic, changes in Thimphu’s multilateral diplomacy in the neighbourhood.

New Delhi is aware of the changes, but would not, under any circumstances, want to vacate space for any other neighbour to manoeuvre in Bhutan, considering its proximity to India. This primarily was the reason for India’s displeasure at the Bhutanese prime minister’s 2012 meeting with his Chinese counterpart. Modi’s decision to make Thimphu his first port of call as prime minister signalled the importance New Delhi accorded to Bhutan. The Indian prime minister inaugurated Bhutan’s Supreme Court building that was built with India’s assistance, and laid the foundation stone of the 600 MW Kholongchu hydro-electric project, a joint India-Bhutan venture. Modi also proposed a joint sports festival between Bhutan and the north-eastern Indian states, promised doubling scholarships for Bhutanese students in India, and offered to establish e-libraries in 20 districts in Bhutan – offers that sought to demonstrate New Delhi’s intent.

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