Public Diplomacy Public Diplomacy

India and Bhutan: Model neighbours, twinned destinies

June 12, 2014

By Manish Chand

From the time India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru trekked to the picturesque Paro on yaks in 1958 to transformative developments following Bhutan's embrace of democracy and the first elections in 2008, it’s been a journey of friendship and mutual empowerment that’s without a parallel in the world.

Why Bhutan?

images/13in.jpgPrime Minister Shri Narendra Modi with Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay of Bhutan in New Delhi An exemplary model of good-neighbourliness and harmonious co-existence, India’s relations with Bhutan are moored in centuries-old cultural links, but have effortlessly kept pace with the changing times, retaining the old and receiving the new. Not surprisingly, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has chosen Bhutan for his first state visit (June 15-16) to a foreign country after taking charge of the world’s most populous and vibrant democracy. The choice of Bhutan is symbolic in many ways, and underscores the primacy of immediate neighbourhood in the new government’s foreign policy calculus and signals its strategic intent to take ties with the Himalayan state to greater heights. Besides the obvious diplomatic and strategic importance of Bhutan, there are many good reasons to visit this unique country which is navigating its transition to modernity at its own pace, but still prefers to measure its wealth in terms of gross national happiness, undistracted by garish seductions of modernity.

Special and exemplary ties

What makes India-Bhutan ties special, unique, time-tested and exemplary? Indeed, it’s a long roster of laudatory adjectives that’s generously used to describe the India-Bhutan relationship, but these are not empty words; they evoke an organic relationship that is grounded in idealism as well as realism. Idealism, as it’s about fraternal relations – the genuine desire of an elder brother to let the younger brother grow and allow him space to grow. Realism, as the relations are woven in a web of win-win opportunities as the two countries nourish and reinforce each other’s vital national interests. Above all, the India-Bhutan relations are bound by an alchemy of trust. When the two neighbours trust each other, the possibilities are boundless and the sky is the limit!

Keeping pace with changing times

Not surprisingly, the relations have grown exponentially over the years since the two countries signed the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in 1949. In tune with the changing times, India seized the initiative to modernize and transform the relations by revising the original Treaty of Friendship in 2007 that has laid the foundation for the future development of India-Bhutan ties in the 21st century. Adapting to the new realities has kept the relationship dynamic and vibrant, without needless sparks of friction. When the idyllic picture-perfect Himalayan kingdom decided to embrace democracy, India was quick to share its expertise and experience in bolstering democratic practices and institution-building in that country. India’s Chief Election Officer V.S. Sampath visited Bhutan to observe elections in that country in July, 2013. Officials of the Bhutanese Parliament have been attending training programmes conducted by the Bureau of Parliamentary Studies and Training (BPST) in the Indian Parliament.

Development Partnership

images/14in.jpgPresident Shri Pranab Mukherjee with King of Bhutan Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck at the Rashtrapati Bhawan, New Delhi The quest for development and national resurgence has provided a powerful impulse to bind the world’s largest and youngest democracies. India remains Bhutan’s largest development partner. Over the years, a large chunk of India’s developmental assistance in form of loans, grants and lines of credit have been committed to Bhutan. The development partnership spans an entire spectrum. India has funded nearly all of Bhutan's landmark projects, including the airport at Paro, the Bhutan Broadcasting Station, the Bhutan-India microwave link, 1 million-tonne Dungsum Cement Plant, Bhutan Institute of Medical Sciences, and all exploration, survey and mapping of mineral resources.

India contributes a hefty chunk of financial assistance to Bhutan’s five year plans. The Indian government provided financial assistance worth a little over Rs. 5000 crores (around 900 million USD) for the 10th FYP. Out of this, Rs. 2000 crores was project tied assistance focused on 70 projects spanning key socio-economic sectors such as agriculture, ICT, media, health/ hospitals, education/schools, capacity building, energy, culture and infrastructure. A cluster of small development projects executed under the 10th five year plan included, among other things, the construction of the Bhutanese Supreme Court, strengthening of Constitutional Offices such as the Royal Audit Authority, Anti-Corruption Commission and Office of the Attorney General, widening of major roads, scholarships and expansion of tertiary educational institutions. For the 11th FYP, India has already approved the financial assistance of Rs 4500 cr. In fact, India is the anchorsheet of Bhutan's development.

Hydropower

Hydropower cooperation forms the enduring good news story in India-Bhutan relations. The cascading rivers of Bhutan, with a combined hydropower potential of 35,000 MW, have offered a sturdy bridge to crystallize this unique partnership of co-prosperity, with power generated in Himalayan mountains and valleys lighting up countless homes and smiles in Bihar, West Bengal and Delhi. The two countries signed a framework inter-governmental agreement on development of joint venture hydropower projects through the public sector undertakings on April 22, 2014 in Thimphu. India has helped set up the 336MW Chukha hydro project (1986-87), the 60 MW Kurichu (2001-02) and the 1,020MW Tala project (2006-2007). India has pledged to buy 10,000 MW by 2020, making Bhutan perhaps the only country in South Asia which enjoys trade surplus with New Delhi. Three more HEPs totalling 2940 MW, i.e., the 1200 MW Punatsangchu-I HEP, the 1020 MW Punatsangchu-II HEP and the 720 MW Mangdehchu HEP, are under construction, and are scheduled to be commissioned by 2018.

Trade Diplomacy

images/15in.jpgForeign Secretary Sujatha Singh calls on King of Bhutan Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck in New Delhi Trade and investment are on an upswing, and will acquire an added traction under the new government in Delhi which has made economic diplomacy the centerpiece of its engagement with neighbours as well as the larger world. In 2012, bilateral trade was estimated to be over Rs 68.3 billion, with Bhutan's exports amounting to Rs. 26.6 billion (including electricity). Under a free trade agreement which will be effective till 2016, Bhutan enjoys duty free transit of Bhutanese merchandise for trade with third countries too.

Security/Strategy

The strategically-located Bhutan continues to be of special significance to India, especially amid reports of the rapidly growing imprints of a neighbouring Asian country. Trust in the strategic sphere is of paramount importance and India’s leaders have not forgotten how in 2003, the then the then King Jigme Singye Wangchuck personally led the offensive by the Royal Bhutan Army to cleanse anti-India insurgents from the Bhutanese soil. Against the backdrop of reports about intensifying activities of insurgent groups along the India-Bhutan border, counter-terror cooperation is bound to gain greater salience in bilateral relations.

The Way Ahead

​The language of friendship shrivels unless it’s spoken more often, and from the heart. In the case of India-Bhutan relations, this language comes easy – the two-way visits are frequent and go off effortlessly without a hitch. In 2012, Bhutan’s young Oxford-educated monarch and the queen chose India as their first overseas stop after their royal wedding, reflecting fraternal ties between the two countries. Bhutan is perhaps the only country where the grandfather, father and son have been invited separately to be chief guest at India’s Republic Day celebrations. His Majesty The Third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck was the Chief Guest during the 1954 Republic Day Celebrations, Later in 1984 and 2005 His Majesty the Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck ( Son of His Majesty the Third King) was the chief guest and in 2013 His Majesty the Fifth King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck was the chief guest ( Son of His Majesty the Fourth King and grandson of HM the Third King).

The bonding between the people of India and Bhutan is a bonding for life, as Bhutan’s young king has said so memorably. Speaking at a state banquet in his honour on the eve of India‘s Republic Day in 2013, the king’s speech glowed with eloquence: "My bond with India is for life, for it arises from two loves — my love for India and, my love for Bhutan and my people.” Recalling his grandfather, who was invited as the Republic Day chief guest in 1954, he said: "The destiny of Bhutan is intimately bound with that of India and it is in our mutual interests to further the bonds of friendship and understanding.” "And, many decades later, in a modernising Bhutan, my father declared, ‘India is the cornerstone of our foreign policy.’ To these profound assertions of intimate bonds I would like to state, Indo-Bhutan friendship is indispensable for the future success of Bhutan,” he said.

If there is an indispensable partnership, which is not located in the future but in the here and the now, it’s that of India and Bhutan. And with the forthcoming visit of India’s prime minister, this union of hearts and minds that mark the India-Bhutan friendship is poised to acquire fresh energy and sparkle.

(Manish Chand is Editor-in-Chief of India Writes (www.indiawrites.org), an online magazine and journal focused on international affairs and the India Story. Follow him on twitter@scpeticcryptic).

References

Joint press release on the official visit of His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, King of Bhutan to India from 6 – 10 January 2014

Inter-Governmental Agreement between Bhutan and India on development of Joint Venture Hydropower Projects

Joint Press Statement on the Visit of Prime Minister of Bhutan to India

Putting neighbours first: India’s new PM to head on Bhutan journey

Ignore the critics: India is getting it right on Bhutan

India, Bhutan share unshakeable friendship: Tobgay

India-Bhutan Joint Press Statement after the official visit of His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the King of Bhutan Feb 11, 2007

Joint media statement on State Visit of King of Bhutan to India (Oct 31, 2011)

Indian-Bhutan Friendship Treaty enters into force



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