Bhutan’s take away from the Indian Election results

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has secured the biggest ever electoral win to form the government at the center for any party since 1984.

Many in Bhutan would have been watching the elections closely – not because Bhutanese people support any party in particular, but mainly due to the longstanding good relations, close economic and political ties between the two nations. There is also the obvious question of how a new political leadership would impact Bhutan.

For a few wondering, as elections of all hues have shown in the past – there will be no major change in India’s foreign policy, at least towards Bhutan. All commitments of the past – from grants for the 11th Plan to ESP to support for 10,000 MW, will remain the same.

The good diplomatic ties between Bhutan and India are between the two respective governments and not any political parties or individuals.

Though the substance will not change – there could be some differences in personalities, tone and tenor.

The BJP is known to be tougher on foreign policy issues than its previous predecessor, the Congress. Though foreign policy was never really a central theme of the 2014 General Elections in India, some of the BJP’s spokespersons on various stations have talked of the Congress government getting their foreign policy wrong – both internationally and regionally.

Spokespersons and foreign policy talking heads in BJP during the campaign also talked of being ‘tough’ with its neighbors (with special focus on Pakistan and China) when it came to its own interests and drawing a ‘line’ of sorts.

However, there is always a big difference in what is said during the heat of election campaigns to election wins and the actual work of governance, and even more so for conducting diplomacy.

This is not the first time Bhutan will be seeing a BJP-led NDA government, which was there in Delhi from 1999 to 2004, and there was no dramatic change in relations between the two countries.

In fact, it was during this period when His Majesty the Fourth King, putting his own life at risk, led Bhutanese Armed Forces in 2003 to flush out militants from Assam and West Bengal. The BJP government, though now under a new leadership, will definitely remember Bhutan’s bravery and goodwill during a critical time when their government was in power in the past.

Apart from the institutional nature of the Bhutan-India friendship, what must be remembered is that whenever His Majesty the King and the Prime Minister visit India they make it a point to meet not only the ruling establishment, but also the Opposition party leader. Even at state banquets and dinners held on behalf of His Majesty the King, leaders from the Opposition party also attend the occasions. So leaders of the new ruling dispensation will be no strangers to Bhutan.

On the economic front, the main agenda of the new BJP government is increasing India’s economic growth and one important component is power. On that front, it could be hoped that there would be a stronger push to complete the 10,000 MW ahead of schedule. Bhutan could also look at investment and business opportunities in India with a more business-minded government. One additional point is that if India’s economy can really take off under the BJP government, then Bhutan also stands to gain, in terms of grants and investments.

One area to watch is the possible creation of a new state of Gorkhaland near Bhutan’s economically crucial border with West Bengal. This is because the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) party had backed a BJP MP who is also a BJP Vice-President, in return for assurances that a BJP government would help in securing a new state of Gorkhaland.

This new state, if formed according to the GJM’s wishes, will encompass not only the hill districts of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong, but also the Bengal Dooars, which currently run parallel to Bhutan’s borders with West Bengal. If and when the state is formed, then apart from Assam and West Bengal, Bhutan will have to deal with Gorkhaland in terms of transport and commercial issues. These are, however, early days and the Trinamool Congress, which currently rules West Bengal, will try to block all such attempts to form such a state and the BJP which is a national party will be looking at all angles before taking any such steps.

One leftover headache for Bhutan, created due to some diplomatic blunders by the former DPT government, would be an untrue but still prevailing perception in a few circles in Delhi that Bhutan is getting closer to China at the cost of India’s security and strategic interests. The PDP government will have to ensure that any such mistaken notions are clarified and the real ground realities are communicated to the new political leadership in Delhi as one friendly country to another.

India’s next Prime Minister Narendra Modi is relatively unknown in the usual political circles in New Delhi and even less so by neighboring countries. Be that as it may, he will have BJP politicians who have been in the central government from 1999-2004 and also seasoned bureaucrats in the Ministry of External Affairs to advise him on foreign policy issues including Bhutan.

At the same time, Bhutan’s leaders who have always been deft and clever in managing Bhutan’s geopolitical interests will soon be getting to know the man and his team better at a professional and personal level. Bhutan will also have to keep an open eye for who will be India’s next foreign minister.

It is usually acknowledged that Bhutan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs gets the best and brightest, and it is now time for them to get working and understanding the macro and mini issues of this political shift in India and its impact on Bhutan.

The new government in Delhi will obviously have to keep in mind, not only the good traditional relations with Bhutan that have withstood all changes, but also the fact that Bhutan, though small in size, has been India’s most reliable and longstanding international friend and partner.

The take away at the end of the day will be no major changes in terms of policy towards Bhutan, but the country will have to watch out for potential new opportunities and challenges.

Diplomacy is like jazz: endless variations on a theme.

Richard Holbrooke

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