Modi’s Bhutan Visit: A Diplomatic Masterstroke
In a diplomatic genius move, Prime Minister Narendra Modi embarked on a two-day visit to Bhutan from June 15. The choice of first visit abroad was an odd one as instead of Moscow, Washington, London or even Islamabad, he preferred to go to Thimphu. But his destination conveyed the importance the new dispensation in India gives to strengthening ties with friendly supportive neighbouring countries while safeguarding India’s geo-political and strategic interests in the region.
After inviting regional leaders of SAARC nations to New Delhi for his swearing-in ceremony, the Prime Minister visited Bhutan to emphasise the ‘special and privileged relationship’ that the two countries share historically, culturally and economically. The visit was a pragmatic step by the PM to stall the efforts being made by hawkish China to increase its influence in the region by trying to woo Thimphu. Beijing in the recent times is trying to establish diplomatic relations with Bhutan.
The right mix of symbolism and hard-core diplomacy was at display during the visit as India and Bhutan decided to continue close “coordination and cooperation” on issues of mutual interest while taking action against forces inimical to them—a veiled message to Beijing. Modi conveyed to Bhutanese King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk and Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay that he has vowed to nurture “B4B relations—Bharat for Bhutan and Bhutan for Bharat.” He reiterated New Delhi’s commitment that despite change in government, the bilateral relations will be further strengthened and India will continue to provide economic support.
In turn, Thimphu promised that it would not allow its territory to be used by forces inimical to India. This is a strong message to Beijing which has been holding talks to resolve its boundary dispute with Bhutan. However, India, which share 699 KM border with Himalayan nation, has strong concerns about this ongoing boundary talks due to Beijing’s plan to expand the Chumbi valley by expanding its claim on Bhutan’s Western border. This would have implication on Siliguri corridor—India’s only access to north-eastern states. Also, increased influence of China in Arunachal sector would not be in India’s geo-political interest. At present, New Delhi has a strong say in affairs of Bhutan including presence of Indian Military Training Team that trains Royal Bhutan Army that mans the border which is not to the liking of China. China has already increased its influence in Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Maldives considerably and is now trying to even woo away Thimphu from India. The Modi government is conscious of this fact and so wants to give a strong message to China through this visit.
Asserting that “terrorism divides while tourism unites,” Modi assured cooperation in developing Himalayan tourism while seeking its support in curbing insurgency in the North-Eastern region. Bhutan, which follows the policy of Gross Happiness Index instead of GDP, has reportedly promised to soon launch an operation to flush out insurgent groups active in West Bengal and North-Eastern states operating from its territory. Significantly, during the earlier NDA regime also, Bhutan had launched ‘Operation All Clear’ to dismantle the camps of ULFA, Bodo insurgents and Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO).
The two countries are committed to increasing Bhutan’s hydropower generation by 10,000 MW. This would go a long way in India’s energy security concerns while at the same time boosting the economic development of Bhutan. Modi, who was given a grand ceremonial welcome, also laid the foundation stone of 600MW Kholongchu hydro-electric project. He inaugurated the Supreme Court building in Hejo constructed with financial assistance of Rs. 70 crore from India.
The PM, who was accompanied by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh, addressed the Joint Session of Bhutan’s Parliament. Despite a faux pas of referring Bhutan as Nepal and then as Laddakh, Modi’s speech in Hindi was applauded by all. At a banquet hosted by Bhutanese PM, Modi spoke about the importance of having a good neighbor.
“In the guarantee of happiness it is important what kind of neighbour you get. Sometimes you get such a neighbour that in spite of having all the happiness and prosperity you cannot live in peace,” he said apparently referring to China and Pakistan. However, he was overwhelmed by the grand reception that he received and said, “ I will remember it all my life.”
During the visit, the PM assured to enhance people-to-people contact by doubling the scholarship for Bhutanese students to Rs 2 crore, assistance in establishing a digital library by providing two million books and periodicals. New Delhi also gave some economic concessions to Bhutan including exemption from any ban on export of milk powder, wheat, edible oil, pulses and non-basmati rice.
Modi also assured that Bhutan’s complaints about delay in disbursal of funds will be addressed.
By Annapurna Jha