His Majesty The King and the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in June 2014 during the Indian Prime Minister’s first foreign visit which was made to Bhutan

What Modi’s visit means for Bhutan

It is said that the Himalayas and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have always had a special relationship.

At a time when younger people look for comfort and security PM Modi at the young age of 17 travelled for two years in the Himalayas taking early morning icy baths , seeking guidance in his life and meeting holy and wise men in the mountains and he in his own words came out a changed man with ‘clarity and a guiding force’.

The man that emerged was of an iron will and over the years he bested many seasoned politicians in the highly competitive world of Indian politics to land up on the very top with predictions of many more years ahead at the top.

One wonders if his early relationship with and understanding of the Himalayas is partly why he has paid so much special attention to Bhutan and is now gracing Bhutan again.

Apart from this personal angle the various diplomatic moves and successes by India in the neighbourhood in the last few years are not an accident, but a carefully designed diplomatic initiative that started with Bhutan back in 2014 when Prime Minister Modi chose Bhutan as the first port of call as a part of the ‘Neighbourhood First policy.’

He followed it up with a visit in 2019 and now this 2024 visit will be his third visit making him earn a record of the only Indian Prime Minister to visit Bhutan so many times.

Given this personal touch, PM Modi is popular both among the Bhutanese leadership and the Bhutanese people.

On its part, Bhutan has not only been India’s closest friend but also its most dependable.

While India has been a generous and gracious benefactor playing the leading role in Bhutan’s socio-economic development, Bhutan has also gone out of its way to contribute to this relationship in many ways, some of which cannot be trumpeted here due to security and geo-strategic concerns.

India’s closest friend Bhutan is hurting and Prime Minister’s Narendra Modi’s visit could not have come at a better time.

The pandemic and its various impacts have not only played havoc with Bhutan’s economy but also its society with huge outward migrations in the post pandemic period.

Bhutan, in fact is not alone in the region, as the economies of almost all of India’s South Asian neighbours have been badly hit with Sri Lanka being the worst hit and others like Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Bhutan impacted.

India which constitutes around 80% of the South Asian GDP had not been economically scarred like the rest.

India in the post pandemic period has played a role of a soothing balm for its neighbours.

Sri Lanka was once not always on the best of terms with India but the role played by India in giving assistance and relief has dramatically changed opinions about India in Colombo which is now much friendlier to India.

Volatile Nepal is also seeing the benefits of cooperation with India with a slew of economic projects and especially so in the hydropower sector rivalling and even close to outdoing Bhutan.

Bangladesh and India share good ties and that only continues to grow with more connectivity and trade.

PM Modi’s visit also comes at an enormously important and transformational time for Bhutan where several major changes are taking place and Bhutan is looking to India as a reliable friend in this new journey and era.

This is why the visit is even more important and holds special significance for Bhutan.

Given the current state of Bhutan’s economy there are two things that Bhutan will be looking towards India for.

The first is that given India’s traditional role as Bhutan’s biggest developmental partner a formal agreement is awaited on Bhutan’s request for Nu 100 bn for the 13th Five Year Plan which is Bhutan’s most ambitious till date. An answer is also awaited on the request for an Economic Stimulus Plan of Nu 15 bn by the new government.

PM Modi may let Bhutan know the answer in this visit.

The second important area is that Bhutan is looking for Indian facilitation and investments in the country in various areas from the important Gelephu Mindfulness City project to hydro projects and more.

Here, Bhutan is not only seeking to deepen cooperation with the GoI but also India’s private sector.

The fact that our largest economic project in the form of the Gelephu Mindfulness City is right at the Assam border shows our trust in India’s friendship and its growth story.

While India’s other neighbours in the past and even now hedge their bets, Bhutan has always looked at India as a true and reliable friend in all seasons and Bhutan has been the same in return. In foreign policy, there is no plan ‘B’ for Bhutan apart from affirming its trust in India.

Hardened ‘Realpolitik players’ may advise otherwise but Bhutan is very clear headed and as crystal clear as the Himalayan glacial streams about its ties with India. There is also an emotional and sentimental attachment between the two countries and there have never been any doubts.

From Bhutan’s side His Majesty The King, His Majesty The Fourth King and Bhutan’s Kings of past have always nurtured and strengthened this relationship and from India’s side successive Prime Ministers have done the same.

The last few years have been very tough for Bhutan but the Bhutanese are a proud people and we rather not bare all our hearts and our pains even to close friends but there is belief that those who care will understand.

The importance of the Bhutan-India friendship is about both the countries and at the same time goes beyond it too.

In an increasingly  uncertain world and in fast changing times the Bhutan-India relationship is a diplomatic template of its own kind. It shows how a continental sized country and a small country can cooperate and work together. It shows to the neighbourhood and the world that India is a good neighbour and a reliable friend.

From the Bhutanese side, it shows that a small nation need not fear or be suspicious of a much larger neighbour and that so much can be achieved with mutual trust, friendship and open hearts.

India is the cornerstone of Bhutan’s foreign policy and Bhutan is also given special importance in Delhi.

Prime Minister Modi will receive Bhutan’s highest civilian award ‘Order of the Druk Gyalpo,’ which is a very rare honour.

This is both a recognition of PM Modi’s special efforts to improve ties with Bhutan and at the same time also reaffirms the deep bonds between the two nations stretching back for decades.

There are 8 MoUs that are expected to be signed. One is on Railway connectivity to Gelephu, Samtse, Pasakha and Samdrupjongkhar.

Another is for an MoU on supply of Petroleum or POL products to ensure its reliability and long-term supply.

There are MoUs on agricultural and livestock technical cooperation and one between Bhutan’s main IT body Gov Tech and India’s National Knowledge Network. 

When Prime Minister Modi could not come as planned on 20 March due to bad weather at the Paro Airport a school child remarked to this writer with a disappointed face ‘Uncle Modi is not coming.’

‘Uncle Modi’ is not an ordinary man and despite the unpredictable Eastern Himalayan weather he will be attempting a landing on 21 March 2024.

All Bhutanese will be wishing it is a successful one.  Anyway, a most warm and hospitable welcome will await him whenever he can come.

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