In 1958, the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, visited Bhutan via Sikkim and the Chumbi Valley, journeying astride ponies all the way to Paro. His letters to chief ministers on this arduous trip are a joy to read, and underscore India’s deep relations with Bhutan, confirming the latter’s isolationist stance. He was welcomed with open arms by the then king of Bhutan. Nehru thought that the two Himalayan kingdoms, Sikkim and Bhutan, as well as Nepal, were to be kept sacrosanct, to work as buffer states vis-a-vis Tibet and China. This, despite the first murmurs of democracy beginning to take root in Sikkim by 1949.
Bhutan has used seclusion and high tariffs to keep itself from evolving politically into a Nepal-like situation. This strategy has worked in its favour. However, there has been an inglorious past of ethnic Nepalese being driven out and several human rights violations being brought to the fore. That Delhi kept this issue tightly canned was a huge overture to Bhutan. Bhutan, meanwhile, has countered these concerns by ushering in democracy, greatly facilitated by the king of Bhutan. The incumbent Bhutanese prime minister, Tshering Tobgay of the People’s Democratic Party, was catapulted to power after the 2013 elections. He won on a “good relations with India” platform. It was widely believed that the former PM, Jigme Thinley of the Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party, would win. But in the final round, the shortage of LPG cylinders and the loss in subsidy on cooking gas took centrestage.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first visit to Bhutan assumes significance against this backdrop. It signals a tweak in policy by making neighbourhood relations as important as those with the Western powers.
Bhutan is the SAARC country with the closest ties with India. India has helped it fashion itself into a modern country, with representation at the UN from 1971. India’s interest in Bhutan can be in no doubt as Bhutan plays a crucial role in the Northeast geopolitically. The role it played in driving out the ULFA and other militants from its southern borders, which were used as safe havens, is a prime example of active cooperation.
For its part, Thimphu will want to secure the balance of trade with generous rupee grants from India, and more market access. There was a time not long ago when shipments of simple goods into Bhutan had to be stopped because of a policy of “thrift”, since rupees had all but dried up. Bhutan’s trade deficit with
India increased to 35 per cent in 2012-13. Exports are mainly in the form of hydropower energy. Bhutan will continue to play a crucial role in India’s power security regime, especially for the region.
The China factor weighs heavily on India’s relations with other SAARC countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, Maldives, continued…