June 18, 2021
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A New Bhutan Calling

It is not a coincidence that the Indian prime minister is the first head of state to address a joint session of the new parliament in Bhutan, but there are legitimate worries that India is faced with an incredible shrinking sphere of influence

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A New Bhutan Calling

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit this week to address Bhutan’s brand new parliament, minted freshly after its first ever election, is to highlight the "unique" relationship, which has prospered despite the pressures of the neighbourhood. But contained within the celebration of friendship is a recognition that the future may not be as sanguine as the tiny nation gradually begins to debate and dabble in democratic politics. Instead of being guided solely by an enlightened monarch’s vision, Bhutan will now have a parliament making decisions.

Even though Bhutan’s Druk Phuensum Tshogpa or the Peace and Prosperity Party, which won the elections in March, is pro-king as most of the Bhutanese are--they went reluctantly for elections--democracy is all about openness and with it come pressures and players from outside. The king remains the commander of the armed forces but most decisions will now be made by the new prime minister, Jigme Thinley, and his 10-member cabinet. The parliament has 47 seats, representing all 20 districts. At the very least there will be 47 new ideas on how Bhutan should conduct its business. India has nurtured, helped and invested in Bhutan for decades, and been responsible for its security but its preeminent position in Bhutan’s economic and political landscape can’t be taken for granted.

It is not a coincidence that the Indian prime minister is the first head of state to address a joint session of the new parliament. Bhutan has always been sensitive to India and in turn New Delhi has handled the former kingdom with care and caution. There may not be another instance of a large country and a small nation getting along without any major hiccoughs. When Bhutan wanted to change the 1949 Indo-Bhutan Treaty, a legacy of the colonial times, India agreed. Articles 2 and 6, which bound Bhutan inextricably to India in terms of foreign policy and defence acquisitions, were revised to allow sovereign decision-making. That it was done smoothly was a reflection of sensitive handling by both sides.

But there are legitimate worries that India is faced with an incredible shrinking sphere of influence with China marking presence in all countries neighbouring India, building ports, listening posts, nuclear reactors and selling arms. Bhutan can’t be an exception forever.

China and Pakistan are both trying to make diplomatic inroads into Bhutan, one by using border disputes--a staple of Chinese diplomacy--to create pressure and the other by using SAARC as a vehicle. Bhutan has no diplomatic relations with China and other major powers, but it has held regular exchanges with Beijing on the border issue. The two signed an agreement in 1998 on maintaining "peace and tranquility" on the border. "China will make every effort to befriend Bhutan simply to dilute its relationship with India. China is a major power and Bhutan’s neighbour and soon there will be questions as to why Bhutan doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Beijing," commented Dalip Mehta, a former Indian ambassador to Bhutan. "It is a geographic inevitability."

Following China’s lead, Pakistan too has been lobbying Bhutan to open an embassy. In November 2005 former prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, using Pakistan’s position as chairman of SAARC, landed in Bhutan with a delegation large enough to fill three air force planes to make his case. India raised questions and Bhutan’s then king, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, made an unscheduled visit to Delhi the same month to allay concerns. He also reportedly talked about China’s hectic road building activities on Bhutan’s northern border, which violates the 1998 agreement. So far Bhutan has sought India’s advice, kept Delhi’s concerns on top and never played the "China card" as some other countries in the region.

But the Indian prime minister recognizes that history may not keep repeating itself and the wisest course is to intelligently maintain and shore up the one solid friendship in the neighbourhood. Perhaps the fear was reflected in the overemphasis by the external affairs ministry while announcing the PM’s visit. It went into an adjective overdrive, calling the relations "uniquely warm and cordial" and "characterized by close consultations, maturity, complete trust and mutual understanding." As Mehta says the test will be how India "manages" the Bhutan relationship in the overall context of its much more complex relationship with China. "There no need to push the panic button. The Bhutanese are extremely astute people and our economic ties are so fundamental that we needn’t be fearful."

But the question is whether India can keep its eye on the ball and match the millennial planning that China does. The borders of Bhutan, China and India meet near the Siliguri corridor and India has a direct interest in the slow push that China is reportedly trying in Bhutan’s Chumbi Valley. Last December India’s top national security team held a meeting followed by an announcement that the Indian army had moved a division from Jammu and Kashmir to the eastern border. Officials worry that such Chinese activity is too close to India’s "chicken neck" which separates India from its northeastern states. The corridor is only 13 to 25 miles wide, making India vulnerable to a territorial cutoff.

There have been no trilateral discussions on the border dispute even though it might make eminent sense. India discusses the issue with Bhutan and with China bilaterally just as Bhutan does but the three don’t have a group discussion. That might just solve the problem--a development that will rob China of its leverage over India and Bhutan.

India has enjoyed Bhutan’s trust ever since Pandit Nehru visited the Dragon Kingdom as the guest of King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, the grandfather of the current king, and laid the foundations of trust. India paid for the first few five-year plans of Bhutan, built roads, hospitals and schools, putting the isolated country on the path to economic development. Keeping up the momentum, Manmohan Singh will dedicate the 1,020 MW Tala hydroelectric project--largest project built by India in another country--and also lay the foundation of the 1,095 MW Punatsangchhu project. The power is bought by India, which fills the gaping energy hole here and the Bhutanese treasury there. By 2020, India plans to buy 5,000 MW from Bhutan, a country with a huge hydropower potential of 35,000 MW.

When Bhutan’s king decided to initiate democracy, it was Indian expertise that guided him. India went on to help generously with both men and materials, providing crucial advice on drafting the election bill over the past three years.

But after all is said and done by the PM, India should take stock of the situation and develop a long-term plan to ensure that the "unique" friendship between India and Bhutan remains unique.

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