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India & Bhutan: All-weather friends, New horizons

November 05, 2014

By Manish Chand

It’s set to be a unique year in the annals of the all-weather friendship between India and Bhutan. As President Pranab Mukherjee heads on his maiden trip to the strategically located Himalayan state early November, the timeless and exemplary relationship between the two fraternal neigbours will once again be in the spotlight. The presidential visit underlines a confluence of civilizational, economic and geostrategic imperatives that grounds special ties between the world’s largest and youngest democracies. 2014 is, therefore, set to be a watershed year as this is the first time the president and the prime minister of India would have visited this Himalayan nation, which prefers to measure its national wealth in terms of gross national happiness, within months of each other.
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With the new Indian government’s proactive pursuit of neighbourhood first policy, the engagement with Bhutan started from the word go – barely a day after he was sworn in, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi held talks with his Bhutanese counterpart Tshering Tobgay in New Delhi and reaffirmed the centrality of the India-Bhutan friendship in India’s foreign policy calculus. And barely a month after taking charge, Prime Minister Modi travelled on his first foreign trip to Bhutan. Speaking to legislators in Bhutan’s parliament in Thimphu on June 16, Mr Modi spoke from the heart and stressed that he might have considered going to bigger developed nations, but "my inner voice said that my first foreign visit as the Prime Minister of India should be to Bhutan.” "I did not spend a lot of time thinking about it or planning it; it was a natural thing for me to do,” he said. The key word here is "natural,” and underscored the organic nature of the India-Bhutan relations, which are underpinned by not just diplomacy or strategy, but by centuries of Buddhism-inspired civilizational links and people-to-people contacts. In other words, while the head rules in the world of real-politick, the India-Bhutan relationship is a union of hearts and minds.
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Partnering Bhutan’s transformation

These glowing expressions would appear florid if there was no solid context to them. But in this case, the sheer range of the India-Bhutan relationship, which encompasses mutually empowering development and energy partnership, tells its own story. Partnering Bhutan’s developmental journey and national resurgence remains the core motif and driving force of India’s Bhutan policy. India remains Bhutan’s largest development and trading partner. India has generously deployed funds and expertise for an entire array of 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’s sizeable financial assistance to Bhutan’s five year plans telescopes special partnership between the two countries. The Indian government provided over Rs. 5000 crores 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. Small development projects have had an enormous transformative impact on the lives of Bhutanese people.

Energising Ties
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Hydropower cooperation underlines the win-win nature of India-Bhutan relations. The cascading rivers of Bhutan, with a combined hydropower potential of 35,000 MW, have forged a unique partnership of co-prosperity, with power generated in Bhutan lighting up countless homes and smiles in Bihar, West Bengal and Delhi. 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.

New Horizons

Looking ahead, the India-Bhutan relations, which were modernised after the signing of a revised Treaty of Friendship in 2007, are set to evolve dynamically. Amid reports of forays by a neighbouring Asian country and the potential terror threat, the two countries have renewed their pledge not to allow each other’s territory to be used for interests inimical to the other. Responding to surging aspirations of the younger generation in Bhutan, India has made education, IT and capacity building key facets of its burgeoning engagement with a new renascent Bhutan. The doubling of the Nehru Wangchuck Scholarship and the Indian government’s support for the establishment of E-Library in the National Library of Bhutan and in all the 20 districts of Bhutan promises to build an enduring knowledge bridge between the two countries. Innovative ideas, unveiled by Prime Minister Modi during his trip to Bhutan, like joint tourism packages for India’s north-eastern states and Bhutan and proactively partnering with Bhutan in preserving the Himalayan eco-system show the new possibilities of enriching this unique relationship.

President Mukherjee’s forthcoming visit to Bhutan will build on these winning ideas and reinforce the template of B4B - Bharat for Bhutan and Bhutan for Bharat – which has been eloquently articulated by Prime Minister Modi. This idea of intertwined destinies has been aptly encapsulated by Bhutan’s king, who has said memorably: "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.” This sense of deep fraternal bonding and synergy of interests will endure amid the relentless flux of time and gain new force in days to come.

(Manish Chand is Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network,www.indiawrites.org, a portal and e-journal focused on international affairs and the India Story)



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