Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s choice of Bhutan as his first foreign destination may have come as a surprise to some, but it sends out significant signals. This visit will help build on the message from the swearing-in ceremony of the new government, which was attended by leaders of SAARC states. That unexpected and well-received invitation helped address some concerns in the neighbourhood, where the decisive verdict for the Modi-led BJP had stoked concerns about a new muscularity of India’s foreign policy. The PM’s decision to prioritise the immediate neighbourhood also underscores his understanding that foreign policy begins at the nation’s borders — that if India cannot reclaim its primacy in the subcontinent, it will not see the rest of the world taking it seriously.
Till recently, the intimacies between New Delhi and Thimphu had allowed India a large footprint in Bhutan. There is coordination still, between the two nations, on several matters, including foreign policy. But with Bhutan steadily democratising, the rise of competitive politics poses a challenge, requiring Delhi to make its diplomacy towards the Himalayan nation more transparent. Bhutan’s nearly $2 billion economy is closely linked to India’s, and Thimphu has largely resisted pressures to take any decision inimical to Delhi. However, as China’s overtures to Bhutan over the last few years have shown, the distance between Thimphu and Beijing is narrowing. Now, Delhi will have to engage more intensely with Thimphu. Paternalism only breeds resentment, and Delhi’s ham-fisted decision — reversed soon — last year to cancel the supply of subsidised gas was insensitive to the aspirations of a changing Bhutan. Prime Minister Modi must take relations with neighbours to the next level, so that Delhi can discard the tradition of offering economic sops and subsidies and instead concentrate on enabling agreements that allow market forces to leverage the economic and geographic complementarities across borders.
Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, rightly saw India’s destiny as inextricably tied up with the subcontinent’s. But Singh was unable to cross India’s borders as often as he should have, barring the odd regional summit. Modi should make contact with India’s neighbours a matter of routine and follow up his Bhutan visit with trips to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal at the earliest. Routinisation will not solve all problems, but the conducive environment thus created may put the subcontinent on the road to economic integration through trade liberalisation and trans-border connectivity. Delhi’s ability to deal with a Beijing or a Washington will improve only when it reconstitutes the subcontinent’s geopolitical unity. It is time to build on India’s natural geographic advantages.