India’s role with the development of the small isolated nation “Bhutan” has been very vital. The small Himalayan country that lies between China and India has chose solitude from foreign interventions. The country has diplomatic ties with only 22 countries over the world excluding countries like the US and UK. Bhutan entered foreign relations by joining UN in 1978 with after receiving sponsorship from India. Bhutan has its embassies in only four countries over the world, India, Bangladesh, Thailand and Kuwait.
Bhutan is one kingdom surviving in less diplomatically connected age. The country shares history with its neighbouring country India. Bhutan and India have friendly relations, with India being Bhutan’s largest trade partner and a huge source of development assistance. In 2007, India and Bhutan renegotiated the basis of their bilateral relationship and signed a new treaty of friendship which has formed the basis of their relations ever since.
Considering the past government the country felt the natural ally had ignored developmental policies with Bhutan. The desire to establish better relations with India’s neighbours the new government has worked on plans since its first day. The world had an inkling of his diplomatic priorities when he invited all the SAARC nations to his swearing-in ceremony. By accepting his invitation so warmly, they also reciprocated his gesture. Among them, Bhutan enjoys a pride of place. New Delhi’s relations with Thimphu have always been cordial. Revitalising the old ties with the kingdom Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown signs of mutual development during his recent visit.
The ‘Friendship treaty’ between the countries stands strong for mutual benefits of the nations. The two countries share ties beyond bilateral trade. The Bhutanese concept of Gross National Happiness works on preserving sixty percent of the country’s forest developing creating new social contract in which nature is given quite a noticeable representation. Bhutan continues to receive aid and grants from India, Bhutan sells the electricity from its hydroelectric dams (which India has helped build) at less than a third of the price that state governments in India charge Indian citizens.
The meet also focused on how India’s prosperity can help its smaller neighbours. This visit illustrates how soft power can drive bargains to meet the needs of hard power. Helping Bhutan develop its tourism, building e-libraries just as India built its Supreme Court, joint sport events, a university for “Himalayan studies” to harness a shared legacy, or doubling scholarships to Bhutanese students, reframes the traditional relationship and takes it beyond a transactional context. Exempting Thimphu from restrictions on the export of several items foregrounds the free trade arrangement as the two sides recommit themselves to promoting trade and investment.
The 2020 target of 10,000 MW hydro capacities in Bhutan may be missed, but the PM’s laying of the foundation stone for the 600MW Kholongchu project puts the focus back on Bhutan’s 24,000 MW hydro potential, which India must help develop for its own energy security. The Indian PM also talked about increasing scholarship programs for Bhutanese students aiming higher education in India.
Bhutan that shares border with India and China making it a politically important country for both historically the relations between India and Bhutan have been better. But India’s goodwill alone will longer be sufficient to keep the ties stronger. Bhutan is a changing country. Democratisation is opening it up to competitive politics, generating debate on Thimphu’s foreign policy, so far closely coordinated with Delhi. India will not only have to be more transparent in conducting its diplomacy, but also keep in mind China’s outreach that is bringing Thimphu and Beijing closer. Without a comprehensive strategy tailor-made for each neighbour, the price of even the best of bilateral ties can only go up. Modi’s visit has made a strong political statement. When the concepts of protectorates and client states are dying, the Indian-Bhutan relationship seems to be unique.
Considering the quest for maintaining stronger relations with Bhutan it is necessary for the Modi Government to work on future prospects. China has also been wooing Thimphu with tempting investment proposals. It is against this backdrop that Modi’s Bhutan visit was a vital one. It shows that the current government is aware of the region’s critical importance to India’s economic dynamism and strategic strength. As Modi has rightly emphasised, a strong and economically vibrant India is necessary for peace and stability in the region.