Bhutan’s new Prime Minister Lotay Tshering wrapped up his visit to Delhi on Saturday with India announcing financial assistance of Rs 4,500 crores for its 12th five year plan. Bhutan, wedged between Asian giants India and China, is of strategic importance to India. Since Independence, successive Indian governments have ensured that Bhutan remains a close ally. So far, India has succeeded in keeping China out of Bhutan but India needs to watch its step at a time when China is spreading its influence across South Asia and aiming to replace New Delhi’s traditional role in its immediate neighbourhood.
The 72-day Doklam stand-off in 2017 frightened the Bhutanese who did not want to be caught in the cross fire between the two Asian powers. Though the Indian army went in to confront the PLA to stop the construction of a road in the Doklam belt, which is in Bhutanese territory, China contests that. During the stand-off, the Bhutanese kept a low profile and did not make any public statement. It is no secret that India was worried about the road mainly because of concerns about China positioning itself in an area which would give the PLA access to the “chicken neck”, a narrow strip of land which connects the northeast to mainland India. That the two countries resolved the problem without resorting to arms was a relief to the people of the Himalayan kingdom.
There were noises in Bhutan before the recent elections about Thimphu fine-tuning its foreign policy to ensure that it did not place all its eggs in the Indian basket. Better relations with China would help the economy and create jobs. As Tshering, a doctor by profession was an unknown factor and his party, Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) was formed in 2013, there was concerns in India about his attitude towards New Delhi. His relatively new party won 30 of the 47 National Assembly seats in the October elections. Would he do a balancing act like Nepal?
But soon after the elections, Tshering in an interview made it clear that there would be no change in the country’s foreign policy. “Our [DNT] views are very clear on foreign policy we believe that it cannot change every five years. Our King (Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck) will be the guiding force on matters of foreign policy… And on India, we believe that Bhutan-India relationship is non-negotiable.”
In less than 20 hours of the election results being declared, Prime Minister Narendra Modi got on to the phone to congratulate Tshering. He assured him of India’s co operation and invited him to Delhi. Modi even attended the oath-taking ceremony too. With China hovering around South Asian neighbours, Modi did not wish to take any chances with Bhutan.
“I’m here with volumes of love, care and affection from my King and the people so please send me back with no less love and care,” Tshering said after the ceremonial welcome at the forecourt of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. “We must everyday in our lives work towards strengthening the Indo-Bhutan relations and during my tenure, I would like to look forward to much greater heights.” He repeated the same sentiment after his meeting with Modi and showered fulsome praise on the Indian Prime Minister.
The Indian PM also spoke about the hydel sector, the mainstay of Bhutan’s foreign exchange earnings. The two sides reviewed the hydel projects which have all been constructed with Indian assistance. Delhi has built three hydroelectric projects with a total capacity of 1,416 MW, which are operational. About three-fourth of the power generated is exported to India and the rest is used for domestic consumption…India and Bhutan are also expected to complete the flagship 750 megawatt Mangdechhu in a couple of weeks. Tshering has already invited Modi for the commissioning.
Besides extending financial assistance for Bhutan’s 12th Five Year Plan, India is also extending Rs 400 crore as a transitional support facility over five years to encourage bilateral trade and economic linkages. Modi has assured the visiting dignitary that India would help to make Tshering’s promise of extending healthcare to every corner of the mountainous country. By all accounts, India is reassured that Bhutan’s new Prime Minister will continue to follow the special and unique relations between the two countries.