Before the 2018 elections the perception in many capitals, including Delhi, was that the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) government stood a pretty good chance of making a comeback.
There was also a good personal equation and chemistry between Dasho Tshering Tobgay and the more elderly PM Narendra Modi.
New Delhi had a comfortable working relationship with the PDP government, especially after a rockier relationship between the UPA 2 government and the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT).
However, 15th September 2018 saw the PDP getting knocked out in the first round itself in a shock defeat and New Delhi saw the possibility of either the DPT or a new ‘unknown quantity’ in the form of Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) coming to power.
When the final results were finally out on 18th October the responsible agencies and officials in New Delhi scrambled to get a better understanding of the new government with new leaders and faces.
It did not help that elements of the press and social media in India had either misreported sections of the DNT’s manifesto or blown up other bits of it without proper context.
A popular misperception at the time was that the DNT was not as interested in hydropower development when all that DNT called was for more balanced economic development. This was interpreted by some as DNT seeking more distance from India.
The first major and official contact at the leadership level between the two sides happened during Lyonchhen (Dr) Lotay Tshering’s three-day state visit to New Delhi from 27th December 2018.
Even though the visit came towards the end of the Modi government’s tenure it was important in two aspects.
The first was that New Delhi could have first hand contact with this ‘unknown quantity’ and secondly Bhutan’s new elected government would meet the Indian government and importantly PM Modi.
The biggest outcome of the visit was the Indian government agreeing to a higher tariff rate for Mangdechu. Also, it importantly saw the then outgoing PM Modi committing Nu 45 bn for Bhutan’s 12th Five Year plan.
During a press conference at the time PM Modi talked about and appreciated DNT’s ‘Narrowing the Gap’ ideology which he said is similar to his ‘Sabka Sath, Sabka Vikas,’ (Solidarity with All with Development for All) slogan.
Modi also reiterated India’s commitment to various related hydro projects in Bhutan and said both both sides want to accelerate the projects.
Modi also mentioned Bhutan’s construction of the ground station for the South Asian satellite in Bhutan with ISRO’s assistance which would help remote areas of Bhutan in terms of weather prediction, disaster medicine and telemedicine.
He appreciated Bhutan’s decision to launch RuPay cards in Bhutan.
Modi acknowledged that Dr Lotay had chosen India as his first destination to visit abroad and he said that he too had done the same in June 2014 calling it a testimony of the close friendship and cooperation between the two countries. He ended his statement with his personal touch of a Tashi Delek greeting which brought a smile to the face of the Bhutanese Prime Minister.
It is important to note that despite a lot of speculation, the DNT government led by the Prime Minister has on more than one occasion clarified that Bhutan will follow the traditional foreign policy first set by Bhutan’s Kings and that India will be an important aspect of it.
The same would have been communicated to New Delhi during Dr Lotay’s state visit easing any doubts and fears.
The meeting of Dr Lotay and PM Modi in 2018 was important also in that the same Indian Prime Minister was re-elected with an even bigger majority in the May 2019 elections.
It was said in 2014 that the BJP majority led Modi government was the strongest in 30 years as it did not require a coalition partner for survival.
However, in 2019 the same BJP under Modi achieved an even bigger mandate despite facing anti-incumbency.
The BJP’s Foreign Policy aspect of its manifesto showed that there will be a continuity in its foreign policy with an even stronger focus and push in the same areas.
The part of the manifesto relevant to Bhutan is the BJP’s reiteration of the ‘Neighborhood First Policy,’ and also its ‘Act East Policy’.
It says, ‘To forward our ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, we will extensively leverage forums such as BIMSTEC, to accelerate regional coordination and economic co-operation with countries in our neighbourhood. Act East Policy, cooperation with ASEAN and ensuring an open, inclusive, prosperous and secure Indo-Pacific will be pursued vigorously.”
Given the spate of MoUs on space and knowledge being signed during PM Modi’s visit, the BJP Manifesto outlines knowledge exchange and transfer of technology and ensuring benefits of space technology reaching smaller countries as a major focus in its diplomatic relations.
It is important to note that foreign policy also played a major role in the BJP’s 2019 electoral win as the Pulwama terrorist attack followed by the Balakot airstrikes in Pakistan and subsequent tensions had stoked a strong nationalistic sentiment in India which favored the incumbent.
India’s foreign policy has undergone a more proactive change under Modi who has not hesitated to change the ‘new normal,’ on more than one occasion.
This is also in response to rapidly evolving foreign policy and geo-strategic situations around India and how it responds to them. For example, many senior Indian journalists and foreign policy watchers pointed out that India’s own recent domestic moves in Jammu and Kashmir was influenced in part by growing rapprochement between the USA and Pakistan over Afghanistan.
Modi’s strong base among Non Resident Indians and his foreign visits have added to his domestic political persona as a leader with international heft and experience.
It is clear that under Modi 2.0 Foreign Policy will occupy an even bigger and more important role.
Modi’s first foreign visit to Maldives where an India friendly government had come to power followed by a visit to Sri Lanka showed a strong commitment to its neighborhood first policy.
Before this, the invitation of the BIMSTEC heads including Bhutan’s PM to the swearing in ceremony on 30th May 2019 was again a reiteration of this with the focus being on BIMSTEC which is essentially SAARC minus Pakistan plus Thailand and Myanmar.
The selection of its former foreign secretary S. Jaishankar trusted by Modi as its Minister for the high profile External Affairs Ministry also sent a strong signal. The post is usually held by a political heavyweight but Modi’s technocratic choice shows that this will be an important ministry.
The new Foreign Minister again signaling the Modi government’s priority made his first diplomatic visit to Bhutan. S. Jaishankar is a both a China and US hand and is understood to be a respected and competent diplomat among his MEA colleagues with an understanding of the complexities of diplomacy.
In Bhutan, PM Modi and Minister Jaishankar will find an evergreen and reliable friend and as reiterated by Bhutan in the past, India is the main cornerstone of Bhutan’s foreign policy.
However, like India is evolving, Bhutan is evolving too and the future of the quality of ties will depend on how such changes are accommodated.
For Bhutan an important priority is its economy and achieving economic self-sufficiency. Bhutan sought only 45 bn from India for the 12th plan which is the same as the 11th plan even though it could have asked for and got more.
The country, though grateful for economic assistance, is increasingly looking more to economic partnerships and investments. In that sense hydropower is a low hanging fruit for both countries. It means government revenue and reducing an unsustainable current account deficit for Bhutan and for India it will complement its renewable energy push.
Bhutan also wants to avoid continue going down the path of a jobless growth as has been the case and so in the last few years it has been laying more stress in science and technology, IT, entrepreneurship and start ups.
The current government making teachers and doctors the highest paid professionals in a recent pay hike is not mere coincidence but part of a long-term approach to develop Bhutanese people as human resources. Bhutan has already taken many steps in this regard and Indian cooperation and partnership will complement it.
Bhutan’s Monarchy has been the initiator and the biggest reason for strong Bhutan-India ties and the traditional foreign policy set up by it has been largely followed faithfully by elected politicians.
The Monarchy went down this path of close friendship with India since the 1950’s not just for the sake of close ties with a trusted and reliable friend but to also protect and preserve Bhutan’s national interests which lay in close ties with India. India came through for Bhutan and vice versa.
From the Bhutanese point of view, the relationship has not only survived but also thrived despite all shades of governments and differing ideologies coming to power in India and the same also holds for Bhutan despite its party politics.
India continues to enjoy the goodwill, trust and friendship of the Bhutanese people and government and vice versa which is a unique achievement in the uncertain world and times of today and should not be taken for granted.
For Modi 2.0 the challenge will be to ensure that ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy leads to effective and positive changes on the ground for the relationship and for Bhutan the challenge will be to ensure that India is aware of Bhutan’s evolving priorities within the larger framework of the relationship.