Significance of Modi’s Visit to Bhutan
Two significant diplomatic events took place soon after the BJP-led NDA government was elected to power in 2014. Both events signaled the diplomatic intent of the new NDA government for its immediate neighbourhood.
The first event was that all Heads of Governments, SAARC were invited for the oath taking ceremony of the newly elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his cabinet. The second major move was that instead of making the first visit to a major foreign power, like USA or Japan, the Indian Prime Minister chose to visit Bhutan, a SAARC member country.
It showed that the new administration in Delhi was set on its path of strengthening ties with its immediate and close neighbours. Such a move was obviously welcomed by the South Asian neighbours – given India’s prominence in the region. The other significant point is that this was the first single party majority Indian government since 1984.
India seeks to improve and strengthen relations with its neighbours during an era of changing and evolving nature of relationships in the region. In today’s globalized era, it is very clear that one of strongest motivating forces in diplomacy is economic growth and trade. However, for trade and economic growth to thrive, political stability, connectivity and security is essential.
In Bhutan, Prime Minister Modi’s choice for his first foreign visit came in as a major surprise, but it was a welcome one. His Majesty the King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and the new People’s Democratic Party (PDP) government in Thimphu meticulously prepared a red carpet welcome for the newly elected Indian Prime Minister.
The visit was seen as a great honour for Bhutan, apart from the strengthening of Indo-Bhutan ties. Needless to say, the visit was a great success, with a genuinely warm welcome extended from the Royal Family, political leaders and the Bhutanese masses to the Indian Prime Minister and his entourage.
The visit enabled Bhutan’s leadership to get to know the Indian Prime Minister better. This was important because unlike many Indian Prime Ministers and ministers before, with Modi’s political rise from Gujarat to Delhi being meteoric, this was the first ever interaction of Bhutanese leaders with the new Indian PM.
The striking chemistry between Modi and Bhutan’s top leaders was publicly visible in their meetings and interactions. It is also significant to note that Prime Minister Modi was accompanied by the Indian Foreign Minister, Sushma Swaraj, and National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval.
An important outcome of the meeting was that Modi, apart from reaffirming the close and friendly ties with Bhutan, also said that there would be a continuity of India’s earlier commitment towards Bhutan, despite a change in the government.
After the good election results, it was expected that Modi would visit a powerful or big country, but he said that it was his inner voice that told him to visit Bhutan. Therefore, the decision to visit Bhutan was entirely his own, given the good relations between the two countries. It confirmed that the Prime Minister, like his predecessor, Dr Manmohan Singh, would drive India’s foreign policy.
The visit also sent a strong message to the larger South Asia region. The Indian PM, picking up on the statement by Bhutan’s Speaker of House, said that a strong India is good, not only for Bhutan but the entire SAARC region. He said that a strong India – without any internal problems, will be able to help its neighbours.
The statement was important, in the sense that as India becomes stronger and richer on its march to a super-power status, it would make sure that the benefits and opportunities are shared with its neighbours, and the region overall would benefit.
Another important indicator of the Modi government’s South Asian policy was the President’s First Address read out in 2014. The speech had an important component on foreign policy particularly with regard to South Asia.
The address talked about how the new government has sent a unique and bold signal to the South Asian region and the world by inviting, for the first time in independent India, leaders of all South Asian neighbours to the swearing-in ceremony of the new Council of Ministers on May 26. It said that this shows the government’s commitment and determination to work towards building a peaceful, stable, and economically inter-linked neighbourhood – which is essential for the collective development and prosperity of the South Asia region.
The policy also talked about working together with South Asian leaders to revitalize SAARC as an effective instrument for regional cooperation and as a united voice on global issues. These are indications of Modi placing a high priority to SAARC and South Asia in his diplomatic dealings.
While India’s renewed, and so far, sincere focus on diplomacy in the South Asia region including Bhutan is welcome, however, the ultimate success of the overall strategy will be seen in its implementation.
As pointed out by strategic and foreign policy experts in India, it will be important for India to be able to deliver on its various projects and commitments to its neighbours, in a time bound manner.
India, as the largest country in the region, should also take the lead in revitalizing the SAARC region and help create a SAARC economy, whereby every SAARC nation or at least those willing to cooperate, can benefit. India can also take a positive leadership role in helping address the unique needs, challenges, and issues facing the smaller SAARC countries.
The History of Indo-Bhutan Ties
Modi’s choice to visit Bhutan was not only because of his intent to signal India’s focus on South Asia, but also due to the close and historically friendly ties between the two nations.
The bedrock and foundation of these ties were laid in 1958 when a 69-year-old Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru made a physically demanding week-long trek from Sikkim crossing through Tibet and finally into Bhutan. He was accompanied by his daughter, and the future Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi.
Nehru’s speech in Paro laid out India’s vision statement of Indo-Bhutan relationship, and more than any treaty or agreements, it was the content and spirit of that speech that helped the two countries remain strong together.
In his historical speech, Nehru said, “Some may think that since India is a great and powerful country and Bhutan a small one, the former may wish to exercise pressure on Bhutan. It is, therefore, essential that I make it clear to you that our only wish is that you should remain an independent country, choosing your own way of life and taking the path of progress according to your own will.”
This was an important statement for Bhutan as it reaffirmed Bhutan’s sovereign status, and it also meant that despite the tremendous difference in size, the relationship between the two countries would be on equal footing.
Nehru’s emphasis that Bhutan choose its own way of life and its own path of progress went down well with a society that was starting to open up to the modern world, and at the same time, highly valued its own culture and unique way of life.
Nehru also pointed out that India and Bhutan were ‘members of the same Himalayan family’ and should live as friendly neighbours helping each other.
He said the ‘freedom of both India and Bhutan should be safeguarded so that no one from outside can do harm to it’.
The entry of Chinese troops into Tibet from 1949 onwards, and Chinese movements near the Bhutan borders, China’s claims on sections of Bhutanese territory, annexation of Bhutanese enclaves in Tibet, complete takeover of Tibet in 1959 and other development, encouraged Bhutan to have a southwards orientation towards India.
From Bhutan’s side – the biggest and defining force in guiding the kingdom to close ties with India was the Bhutanese Monarchy, who at the time was, His Majesty the Third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck. Looking at what was happening in its neighbourhood and events around the world, the Bhutanese Monarchy decided to rapidly modernise and open up Bhutan. Given the dramatic and positive changes that followed, His Majesty the Third King is also known as the Father of Modern Bhutan.
Bhutan’s Monarchy, while being the leaders of a deeply traditional and Buddhist society in the Himalayas, were also the ultimate realists who saw and faced up to the reality of a rapidly changing world and region. They also deeply loved their country and wanted the best for it, even if at times, it meant restricting and giving up their own powers.
The first and second Kings of Bhutan, from 1907 to the 1940s, had tried to secure the British aid in opening up and developing Bhutan, but the British were content in only having a friendly buffer state in Bhutan.
After India gained independence in 1947, India and Bhutan became natural allies and friends with shared strategic goals and close leadership link. The most important consideration for Bhutan’s partnership with India was to address Bhutan’s developmental needs and its strong desire to open up to the world on its own terms.
On a return visit to India, His Majesty the Third King said, “The bonds of understanding and friendship have been further consolidated as a result of the growing economic and technical cooperation between our two countries, and I am fully convinced that nothing can ever shake or destroy our friendship.”
The meeting of the two leaders not only set up the foundation of friendly relations between the two countries, but also institutionalized it for the future generations and leaders.
The Indo-Bhutan ties continued to grow stronger over the years, especially during the reign of His Majesty the Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, from 1974 to 2006. Under the wise and stable leadership of His Majesty the Fourth King, Bhutan witnessed a period of unprecedented development and a golden age in various fields, and especially so in the socio-economic sector.
The development was possible due to major assistance from India. His Majesty the Fourth King’s reign saw dealings with a series of Indian Prime Ministers, like Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Narasimha Rao, V.P Singh, H.D Dewe Gowda, I.K Gujaral, Atal Vihari Vajpayee, and Manmohan Singh – from different political eras and formations, but the relations and ties between the two countries was strong and mutually beneficial.
The politically astute Fourth King managed to strengthen Bhutan’s ties with India despite different leaders and political circumstances in India. It is also testimony to the nature of the close ties between the two nations.
His Majesty the King has continued and built on the legacy of His Majesty’s father and grandfather. His Majesty’s role has been especially valuable with the advent of electoral democracy where there are competing political parties. His Majesty has reminded and impressed upon all political parties the need of maintaining and strengthening good ties with India. His Majesty the King through his sheer influence and prestige has ensured that in an era of populist politics Bhutan does not head down the path of certain other countries where anti-India politics is a major domestic political factor.
His Majesty has himself taken the lead on various occasions be it in being the Chief Guest at the Republic day events or making other visits to India to strengthen ties. During a particularly tricky period in the relations between the two countries under the former Druk Phuensum Tshogpa government, it was His Majesty who played a major role in ensuring that the ties between the two countries did not suffer further.
For India, the high point in the relationship was in 2003 – when the Royal Bhutan Army under the personal command of His Majesty the Fourth King flushed out various militant groups from Assam and North Bengal.
For Bhutan, one major high point was when His Majesty the King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck signed the revised India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty in 2007.
The 1910 Treaty of Punakha, besides emphasizing on the sovereignty of Bhutan, had laid the basis of friendly relations between British India and the Royal Government of Bhutan. This was later modified and upgraded in 1949 Indo-Bhutan Treaty.
However, the previous treaties said that Bhutan had to seek Indian advice in the conduct of its foreign policy and also seek its clearance to import arms. Both the provisions were redundant as Bhutan, over the decades, practiced an independent foreign policy, establishing relations with numerous countries.
However, out of a spirit of friendship and mutual cooperation than any treaty obligation, Bhutan ensured that its foreign policy moves did not harm Indian security interests. India also responded in kind and always stood by Bhutan at the international stage. As for importing arms, far from taking permission, it was India that provided significant military assistance to Bhutan – in both training and military equipment.
Therefore, the 2007 treaty, recognizing the close bonds of friendship between the two countries and also the ground realities, did away with the outdated provision of Bhutan having to seek India’s advice in foreign affairs or to seek its permission to import arms.
After Nehru’s visit to Bhutan in 1958, the leaders of the two countries agreed that India would provide developmental assistance to Bhutan through a system of five-year plans that India, itself, was following.
The five-year plans, from 1961 to 1981, which consisted of four plan periods, were majorly funded by the Government of India. The assistance garnered from these plans allowed Bhutan to go in for a period of dramatic modernisation – building highways, farm roads, school, hospitals, irrigation and agricultural based projects, mini-hydro electric plants, administrative institutions and systems, revenue producing economic projects, and various other social programmes.
As Bhutan became economically stronger and more self-sufficient, India’s share of assistance of Bhutan’s five-year plans started coming down. India’s assistance to Bhutan’s planned development averages around 25 percent to 30 percent from the 5th – 11th plan.
As Bhutan joined more international institutions and cultivated diplomatic ties, it was able to get funding and soft loans from other sources, like Colombo Plan, the United Nations, international financial institutions, through countries in Europe, Japan, etc.
Bhutan’s five-year plans increased tremendously in size; from a mere Nu 107 mn in 1961 to Nu 213bn in 2013 (Ngultrum and Rupee are pegged at the same value).
India has agreed to provide Nu 45bn for Bhutan’s 11th plan. India is also providing an additional Nu 5bn for an Economic Stimulus Plan outside the 11th plan. Such assistance has played an important role in increasing Bhutan’s Gross Domestic Product from Nu 1bn in 1977 to Nu 104bn in 2014.
The relationship between the two countries has gradually been evolving over the years, from that of developmental cooperation to economic and commercial partnership now. For example, four Indian PSUs will own a 50 percent stake in four mega hydropower projects in Bhutan.
Bhutan’s international diplomatic profile and stature has been increasing over the years, but at the same time, the two countries share a strong and mutually beneficial strategic partnership without harming each other’s interests.
To be continued
This paper was presented by the writer at a regional conference organized by the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University from 24th to 25th March in New Delhi. The aim of the conference titled ‘India and its Neighbors: Policy Priorities for the new government’ was to solicit independent views and recommendations on India’s regional foreign policy. All recommendations will be published as a book and will be presented as policy advice to the new Indian government.
By Tenzing Lamsang
The writer is the Editor-in-Chief of The Bhutanese