The Assam Chronicle

News and Views from Northeast India

Modi’s Bhutan Visit

Guwahati, 13 July 2014 (By Dr Rupak Bhattacharjee) - The foreign policy observers have hailed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent Bhutan visit as timely and fruitful given India’s stakes in the strategically located tiny nation. Modi visited the Himalayan kingdom on June 15-16 at the invitation of Bhutanese king and prime minister. This was his maiden foreign trip following the assumption of power aiming at further consolidating the existing close and friendly bilateral relations between the two countries. Prior to his departure, the prime minister said he would review with the Bhutanese leadership on making the “development cooperation programme” between the two countries “even more effective”. India also intends to explore the possibilities of expanding people-to- people contacts between the two neighbours, “particularly among the youth. In this regard, the role of educational links will be very important”.

Bhutan has consistently been India’s closest South Asian ally over the last several decades. Acknowledging this unique bilateral tie, Modi said, “Bhutan and India share a very special relationship that has stood the test of time”. Emphasising special and unique status of Bhutan in India’s foreign policy, Modi called the Indo-Bhutan ties as B2B (Bharat to Bhutan) relations. Indian prime minister’s visit has to be seen against the background of changing geo-political situation in the neighbourhood and China’s growing efforts to bring the small mountainous and sparsely populated nation under its ambit of influence. The prime minister’s delegation included External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Foreign Secretary Sujata Singh to discuss wide ranging bilateral issues with the Bhutanese leadership.

Explaining the rationale behind choosing Bhutan instead of other smaller neighbours such as Nepal and Bangladesh as the country of his first foreign visit, Modi said, “Bound by common interests and shared prosperity, India and Bhutan enjoy a unique and special relationship which has been forged by ties of geography, history and culture……Therefore, Bhutan as the destination of my first visit abroad as the prime minister is a natural choice. Relations with Bhutan will be a key foreign policy priority of my government”. Underscoring the importance New Delhi attaches to relations with Bhutan and other South Asian neighbours, the Indian foreign secretary said, “Bhutan is one of our most important strategic partners. It is a good country to show our policy of good neighbourliness in South Asia and special token of friendship”.

The message New Delhi sought to convey to the Bhutanese leaders by choosing Thimphu as the first foreign destination of the new Indian prime minister was well received. Bhutan’s Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay welcomed the decision of the Modi government in the following words: “It is historic that he is visiting Bhutan within a month of taking over as the Indian prime minister. We are delighted, humbled by his choice. It’s even more significant for us not only as a SAARC member but as a close friend of India”.

Bhutan had been hobnobbing with China under previous premier Jigmey Thinley raising serious concerns in the security and foreign policy establishment of India. New Delhi’s decision to discontinue subsidy on LPG and Kerosene it supplied to the country was seen by many as a token demonstration of New Delhi’s displeasure with Bhutan’s outreach to the Asian giant. The decision was revoked soon after Tobgay’s People’s Party won the second parliamentary elections held on July 13, 2013. Following his assumption of office, Tobgay said, “Good relations with India is the cornerstone of our foreign policy”. The incumbent premier is considered to be more accommodative as far as India’s security and economic interests are concerned.

The Bhutanese leaders also heaped praises on Modi for his friendly approach towards South Asian neighbours in general and Bhutan in particular. A day before Modi’s visit, Tobgay said, “He is a friendly person and obviously very knowledgeable and well disposed towards Bhutan…..He is very aware of the details of the Indo-Bhutan relationship and overall gives a sense of purpose and hope”. The Bhutanese premier added that his government would discuss all the commitments made and the generous support that Bhutan receives from India. He emphasised that his government seeks to strengthen the economic ties with India as it would eventually improve the Bhutanese economy. Modi’s visit had raised hopes in Thimphu about the crucial Indian support in Bhutan’s development endeavours. The country’s Foreign Minister Rinzin Dorji said that Modi “is a prime minister who delivers and from the interaction, we could sense he has concerns for Bhutan and the region”.

Both the nations are currently engaged in diverse areas that include infrastructure building, information and communication technology, energy, health, agriculture, human resource development and tourism. In 2007, India and Bhutan signed a new treaty of friendship which has been the basis of their bilateral relations since then. Indian prime minister visited Bhutan the next year and pledged support for the country’s smooth transition from absolute monarchy to parliamentary democracy. The new Indian prime minister assured Bhutanese leadership that a change of government in New Delhi would not affect the traditional friendship between the two nations and India is serious about fulfilling its pledges and committed to Bhutan’s happiness and progress. Reiterating India’s commitment to assist Bhutan in the socio-economic development of the Himalayan nation, Modi said, “The government of India has been a privileged and leading partner of Bhutan in its socio-economic development. We rejoice in Bhutan’s remarkable economic growth and its progress and prosperity. We are committed to continuing our unstinted support to Bhutan in its development efforts”.