By Dr DK Giri
(Prof. International Politics, JMI)
Bhutan’s newly-elected Prime Minister Lyonchhen Lotay Tshering made his maiden foreign visit to India to reinforce a time-tested, enduring friendship and also to complete the commemoration of golden jubilee of India-Bhutan diplomatic relations. Having taken over office in November 2018, Tshering declared he was here to take the bilateral relations to new heights. Remember, our Prime Minister Narendra Modi had made Bhutan his first foreign trip when he took office in 2014.
Tshering gratefully acknowledged that Modi was the first and the only head of government to call and congratulate him on his electoral victory. These diplomatic gestures reflect the unique and special relationship both countries have had since the Punakha Treaty 1910, signed between British India and Bhutan which guided the bilateralism. In addition to political relationship, the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan shares deep religio-cultural ties with India.
Tshering had formal exchanges with his Indian counterpart covering trade, hydro-power, the bedrock of India-Bhutan development cooperation, external affairs, military and strategic issues. The new agreements and understandings were preceded by review of the on-going projects and agreements where both, New Delhi and Thimphu concurred in the satisfactory progress of bilateralism.
On strategic front, New Delhi and Thimphu have a close relationship. Tshering said they discussed bilateral and regional issues of mutual interest. The bilateral strategic relations were guided by the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation signed in Darjeeling in 1949. Article 2 of the Agreement was quite significant, which said: “The Government of India undertakes to exercise no interference in the internal administration of Bhutan. On its part, the Government of Bhutan agrees to be guided by the advice of Government of India in regard to its external relations”.
However, in 2007, the article was revised to say “both the countries shall cooperate with each other on issues relating to their national interests”. The spirit of Article 2 still persists as Thimphu leans on New Delhi in its external relation. The formal diplomatic relations were set-up in 1968.
Arguably, of late, the China factor influences India-Bhutan relations. Since Chinese annexation of Tibet in 1950, both New Delhi and Thimphu regard Beijing as a common threat. Bhutan shares 470 km border with China, and experiences sporadic tension at the border. Since, 1990, Bhutan has been rejecting Chinese ‘package deal’ to exchange Doklam for territorial concessions. Doklam is of great strategic importance to India as was recently experienced in the stand-off with China. Bhutan has not joined BRI project of China. Unlike Nepal, Bhutan does not play the China card against India. Beijing has unsuccessfully been trying to woo Thimphu with its soft-diplomacy like encouraging tourism etc.
Both countries support each other in international forums. India supported Bhutan’s membership of UN. The latter supported India on its stand on Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. India was opposed to both as these were exclusive. Bhutan is a founding member of SAARC, and a member of BIMSTEC. Thimphu took strong steps in flushing out anti-India militants from its territory in an exercise called “Operation All Clear”. Indeed, Bhutan is a top priority for India in its ‘neighbourhood first’ policy. Prime Minister Modi coined a new strategy called B2B – Bharat to Bhutan to deepen the sacred bond between the two.
On the economic front, New Delhi promised an assistance of Rs 4500 crore to Bhutan’s 12th Five Year Plan running from 2018 to 2023. Another Rs 400 crore was promised as a transitional trade support facility for a period of five years in order to strengthen bilateral trade and economic linkages. New Delhi has been extending support to Bhutan’s five year plans which started in 1961.
India is the biggest trading partner of Bhutan accounting for 90% of its imports and 98% of exports. The trade is guided by the Trade and Transit Agreement signed in 1972 between New Delhi and Thimphu. In 2016, the bilateral trade touched Rs. 8,273 crore. The Indian side commended the new developments like introduction of Rupay Card – an Indian debit and credit card in Bhutan.
On the crucial hydro power sector, New Delhi is heavily backing Thimphu to generate electricity. In 2006, both countries signed a Co-operation Agreement to generate 10,000-mw electricity in Bhutan and to supply the surplus power to India. Two latest hydro-projects, Sankosh hydro project and Mangdechhu project were discussed. Bhutan has huge hydropower potential with its five rivers, the estimated capacity is 23,760 mw, the current capacity is about 1606 mw out of which 1416 mw (three projects) has been installed; three more projects of 2,129 mw are to be developed with Indian technical and financial assistance.
The other areas of cooperation included space cooperation, education, and infrastructure etc. India’s space programme South-Asia satellite covers Bhutan where ISRO is preparing the ground station. This will help Bhutan to send out weather-messages to its far-flung areas, help in tele-medicines and disaster relief operation. New Delhi has helped Thimphu in setting up its democratic infrastructures, building up the Supreme Court etc. Government of India extends scholarship for Bhutanese students in India, which stands at Rs. 2 crore and is likely to continue.
As a word of caution, New Delhi needs to be a bit careful in not putting-off Thimphu with its big brother attitude. Thimphu has been discomfited by New Delhi’s occasional paternalism. For instance, when Bhutan was apparently getting close to China, New Delhi suddenly withdrew its subsidies on kerosene and cooking gas. Such knee-jerk reaction could be avoided. In December, 2014, Bhutan’s total debt was 112 per cent of its GDP; 75 per cent of it was to India. Furthermore, most of what Bhutan borrows from India allegedly finds its way back to India.
On the flip side, the much-vaunted hydro projects are not creating jobs in Bhutan, the revenue supposed to be generated by the hydro electricity suffers from low demand in India, low industrial requirement etc. Also, much of the electricity is lost in transmission. In order to make hydro power in Bhutan mutually beneficial, New Delhi has to review its output and the right rewards for Bhutan.
Finally, to maintain the historic and enduring relationship, New Delhi should help Bhutan become self-reliant, guide Thimphu in strengthening its democratic set-ups and political establishment. Let us note that Bhutan is a unique country, fully organic without chemicals or pesticides, talks of GNH – Gross National Happiness, as against GDP. Around 60 countries and the UN recognise this unique Bhutanese practice. New Delhi should help preserve this uniqueness as it should recognise and reinforce Bhutan’s assertion of democracy and self-reliance. As the biggest democracy in the world, India owes this to its ‘closest and friendliest’ neighbour.—INFA