Diplomatic Enclave: Recharging batteries

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There is happiness quotient in Indo-Bhutan relations after Modi’s visit to Thimpu

TheRE is a happiness quotient in India-Bhutan relations over prime minister Narendra Modi’s decision to make Thimphu his first foreign destination. The new government has prioritised the neighbours for its foreign policy agenda, beginning with invitations to South Asian leaders to attend the inaugural function of the Modi government. Bhutan is among India’s smallest neighbours with the friendliest of ties. It sets an example for the South Asian region of the benefits of a cordial, cooperative relationship with India.

Though India has a special and privileged relationship with Bhutan, Modi’s decision to visit Bhutan evoked much surprise. But it is necessary to work upon even a good relationship to avoid falling into the rut of complacency as happened when India-Bhutan ties had a jarring blip last year. The result of bad planning on one side and lackadaisical functioning on the other led to Indian oil suppliers cutting off supply of subsidised kerosene and gas to Bhutan.

The reason given was that the agreement with Bhutan lapsed when its five-year plan ended without a new agreement in place — but it was the poor people who bore the brunt of the Indian action. Gas and kerosene supply was resumed quickly but not before uncomfortable questions were raised on whether the stoppage was due to bureaucratic mishandling or motivated action.

Leaders in both countries have always maintained warm, personal ties with each other, a factor that provides the lubricant for friction-free bilateral ties. The visit energised prime minister Modi’s own ties with the Bhutanese leadership. Modi spoke of his decision to visit Bhutan as a natural choice, describing Bhutan as a key foreign policy priority for his government. “A key parameter for gross national happiness is having good neighbours,” he said.

Bhutan, sandwiched between India and China, is a strategically important country for India. It borders the Chumbi Valley, the sensitive tri-junction of India, China and Bhutan and is close to the Siliguri corridor, which connects the northeast region to the rest of the country. Bhutan has been in talks with the Chinese over their disputed border for some years. China has claims in the Chumbi Valley and it has proposed making an adjustment with Bhutan by giving up claims in the northern region in exchange for territory in the tri-junction area. This is of obvious concern to India.

China has been wooing Bhutan; it is keen to open a mission in Thimphu. The former prime minister of Bhutan, Jigme Thinly, created some ripples in New Delhi when he met his Chinese counterpart, Wen Jiabao, at the Rio Summit two years ago and discussed the issue of establishing diplomatic relations with China.

Bhutan is slowly ending its self-imposed seclusion. Its first elected government initiated a rapid opening up the economy that resulted five years later into a severe economic crunch and a foreign exchange crisis. The new government in Thimphu began a course correction and India provided a standby credit facility to Bhutan to tide over its liquidity crisis last summer. The Bhutanese leadership has been sensitive to Indian concerns. In 2003, the Bhutanese security forces mounted a successful operation under the personal supervision of the fourth king to flush out ULFA militants who had established camps in the jungles across the Bhutan border.

Bhutan is a country with a young population; it is in the midst of its democratic transition as well as in the process of opening out to the world. More Bhutanese are travelling abroad, studying in distant countries and bringing home new ideas.

As Bhutan undergoes its transformational changes, New Delhi has also to readjust to the changing aspirations in that country. Social media has provided an avenue for young Bhutanese to voice their opinions, and several Bhutanese have asked why Bhutan should continue to shun its biggest neighbour, China.

Energy has been a cornerstone of the India-Bhutan bilateral relationship with the development of Bhutan’s hydropower capacity and the sale of electric power to India. It is the kind of partnership that India would like to develop with Nepal, which has a similar hydropower potential. But there is need for sensitivity on tariff issues. There is a section in Bhutan that believes Indian purchase price is too low even though the projects were financed through loan and grant by India. There have been differences over the increase in price for the power generated at the Chukha project. Tariffs negotiated many years ago should be brought to reflect present day realities to avoid giving the impression that India was getting an unfair advantage on the price of power.

As a large neighbour, India needs to show greater consideration for the sensitivities of its small neighbours. Modi’s visit to Bhutan was a politically significant one; it generated goodwill and signaled India’s continued commitment to Bhutan.

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