Updated: June 17, 2014 12:28:14 am
Prime Minister Narendra Modi called Bhutan the “natural choice” for his first foreign visit after assuming charge in Delhi. That the PM would prioritise engagement with the states of the subcontinent was foretold by his bold gesture of inviting SAARC leaders to his swearing-in. Picking Bhutan, with which Delhi has enjoyed a “unique and special” relationship — as well as a nearly exclusive footprint until recently — was informed by Modi’s recognition that India’s foreign policy must begin at its borders. Reconstituting the geopolitical unity of the subcontinent, by ensuring each other’s security and integrating the regional economies, is the right way forward in leveraging India’s geographic advantages to regain Delhi’s primacy in its neighbourhood.
Underscoring how India’s prosperity can help its smaller neighbours and how the converse — a “weak and struggling” India — cannot, Modi’s two-day visit sent out a message beyond Thimphu to the other capitals of the subcontinent. This visit illustrates how soft power can drive bargains to meet the needs of hard power. Helping Bhutan develop its tourism, building e-libraries just as India built its Supreme Court, joint sport events, a university for “Himalayan studies” to harness a shared legacy, or doubling scholarships to Bhutanese students, reframes the traditional relationship and takes it beyond a transactional context. For that matter, exempting Thimphu from restrictions on the export of several items foregrounds the free trade arrangement as the two sides recommit themselves to promoting trade and investment. While Bhutan’s $2 billion economy is closely linked to India’s, its single-largest export to India is electricity, with three of its four operational hydel projects bilaterally developed for exporting power to India. The 2020 target of 10,000 MW hydel capacity in Bhutan may be missed, but the PM’s laying of the foundation stone for the 600MW Kholongchu project puts the focus back on Bhutan’s 24,000 MW hydel potential, which India must help develop for its own energy security.
However, Delhi’s goodwill alone will no longer suffice. Bhutan is a changing country. Democratisation is opening it up to competitive politics, generating debate on Thimphu’s foreign policy, so far closely coordinated with Delhi. India will not only have to be more transparent in conducting its diplomacy, but also keep in mind China’s outreach that is bringing Thimphu and Beijing closer. Without a comprehensive strategy tailor-made for each neighbour, the price of even the best of bilateral ties can only go up. Modi’s visit has made a strong political statement. The rest of the work begins now.
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