When the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s airplane lands in Paro on Sunday, the new Indian Prime Minister will be stepping on the soil of the only country in the SAARC region that does not hold any anti-India politics and where there is the genuine warmth towards India from both the leadership and the people.
At the same time, the visit of PM Narendra Modi to Bhutan, which has already been declared historic by Bhutan PM Tshering Tobgay, assumes a special significance for Bhutan as this would be Modi’s first foreign visit after becoming PM.
The significance of this decision has not been missed in Bhutan,which feels honoured and proud that Modi has chosen an old and reliable friend Bhutan, especially when the entire world’s eyes are on the new Indian PM.
In what is an already encouraging sign, PM Tshering Tobgay told this paper that during his meet with PM Modi in New Delhi, the Indian PM was both knowledgeable on India-Bhutan ties and was well disposed towards Bhutan. The PM Tshering Tobgay ever since coming into power has gone out of his way to strengthen relations between the two countries.
An important outcome of PM Modi’s visit will be an even stronger and better tide between two countries that already enjoy very friendly relations with mutual economic and strategic interests. It will also allow for the relatively new leadership of both countries to get to know each other better and to develop a personal relationship that has increasingly become important in today’s age of international diplomacy.
The visit will also allow the new Indian PM to meet with His Majesty the King and His Majesty the Fourth King, both of whom have been absolutely central in the historical and
also current state of good relations enjoyed between the two countries.
The Monarchy in Bhutan is held in high regard by the elected leadership and people alike and it is this institution that has not only laid the foundation of India-Bhutan ties starting with the visit of Late Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1959, but also progressively and consistently strengthened it over the decades irrespective of changes of governments or parties in New Delhi. It is chiefly due to the efforts of this institution and the strong faith of people in it that India has always found a ready and reliable friend in Bhutan and the Bhutanese people. In fact, the invitation to visit Bhutan was extended by the PM on behalf of His Majesty the King.
The decision of PM Modi to visit Bhutan closely follows on the invitation extended to SAARC heads of governments for the swearing in ceremony of Mr Modi. This is no coincidence as shown in the recent President’s address to the Indian Parliament, which laid out among other things the foreign policy priority of the new government.
The new BJP led NDA government has underlined the importance of focusing its foreign policy efforts in its South Asian neighborhood and also revitalizing SAARC. The policy talks of a peaceful, stable and economically inter-linked neighborhood which is essential for the collective development and prosperity of the South Asian Region. This bodes well, not only for the collective SAARC, but also for Bhutan as the new government in Delhi will act locally but think globally, and in doing so – take everybody along to the path of prosperity.
Bhutan, as an old friend, would want India to do well and surge ahead in the global scene as experience in the past has shown that the economic rise and prosperity of India has translated into benefits for Bhutan including other countries in the region.
However, for any major country or regional bloc, they can only ever truly rise on the global platform if their neighborhood is stable and happy, so to speak. The new dispensation in New Delhi led by Mr Modi has wisely realized this, and is thus, focusing with renewed energy and depth in its own neighborhood which is loaded with a lot of potential and unexplored opportunities, apart from the well known challenges.
It is in this context that India-Bhutan friendship model will serve as a positive example to the entire region in terms of the good and stable political ties and also the various benefits that flow from such trust, such as the mutually beneficial economic projects like hydropower.
An important aspect of Mr Modi’s foreign policy, as read out by the President, is about strengthening and capitalizing on its soft power, in terms of its rich spiritual, cultural and philosophical heritage. This is something that the people in India can take away from Bhutan as Bhutan is a global soft power player by using its own rich spiritual and cultural heritage along with the development philosophy of Gross National Happiness. It has led the countries from France to U.K to Japan to many European and other nations wanting to learn from Bhutan and borrow such a philosophy and way of life. Bhutan, in that sense, has been able to build a good brand for itself in the international arena.
There can be no doubt that Bhutan has benefitted immensely over the decades, starting from the 1960’s with planned Indian assistance and grants. This has played a key role in Bhutan’s
rapid socio-economic development. Bhutan, on the other hand, has been a close and reliable strategic friend and partner and has resisted the strong efforts of some major global players to gain a Himalayan foothold. Bhutan has also been very perceptive of India’s security interests demonstrated, especially during the time of the former BJP government in 2003, when His Majesty the Fourth King personally led Bhutan’s armed forces to flush out large numbers of Indian militants and terrorists all armed to the teeth after they failed to heed Bhutan’s peaceful requests to leave.
With the core fundamentals of the India-Bhutan relationship being secure and strong, it is time to now further expand and diversify this relationship. One such area where good progress is already being made is in the field of hydropower projects that will benefit both countries for the obvious reasons.
India could also explore the various economic potentials in Bhutan and invest in industries, tourism, cottage industries, ICT, agriculture, which would not only mean a more prosperous Bhutan but also benefit the Indian investors. A good start could be made by strengthening the communication and transport infrastructure between the two countries like railways lines, roads, dry ports, etc. For a rupee and liquidity scarce Bhutanese economy, the Indian government could also consider extending reasonable rupees facilities for big projects in Bhutan that normally drain out rupees.
The India-Bhutan relationship has not only stood the test of time, but has also gotten qualitatively better and more mature over the years. This landmark and historic visit will be another opportunity to take the relationship to the next level for the mutual benefit of both countries.
“Despite the vast difference in size and population, our friendship has been constant because of the pillars of trust and understanding on which we have founded
it. Our relationship stands as a model of partnership and cooperation.” – His Majesty the King of Bhutan (At a memorial lecture in New Delhi in 2009).