CENTRE for POLICY ANALYSIS

CENTRE for POLICY ANALYSIS

“Social progress can be measured by the social position of the female sex” - Karl Marx

ARTICLE


Mountain echoes for India


The recent elections to Bhutan's national assembly produced a victory for the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT), a left-of-the-centre party led by Dr Lotay Tshering. This was the third national poll in the tiny Himalayan country since it switched to the democratic system of governance after Bhutan's King gave up power in 2007. And each of the elections since the first in 2008 brought a new party to power starting with Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) spearheaded by former Prime Minister Jigme Thinley and followed by People's Democratic Party (PDP) led by outgoing Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay and now the DNT.

The PDP finished third in the first round of elections held in September with the DNT and the DPT coming first and second respectively. This set the stage for the final run-off in October between the top two contenders for power.    

The outcome of the elections in Bhutan mattered to India perhaps more than any other of its neighbouring countries in South Asia-not just because the Himalayan nation has deep cultural and religious links with India but is also crucial to New Delhi's national security interests vis-a-vis China. That security aspect was most evident during the 73-day eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between the armies of India and China in 2017 at Doklam plateau in Bhutan. India's most important concern was the Chinese army's bid to extend a road towards the south which would give Beijing easy and shorter access to a strip of land called the "Chicken's Neck" providing vital land connectivity between mainland India and its northeastern region. This strategic location also has implications for any possible resolution of the China-Bhutan border.

No wonder, soon after the results of the elections in Bhutan came out, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an important outreach to Lotay Tshering, who is set to be the country's new premier, by speaking to him on the phone and articulating the broad pillars of India's policy towards its northern neighbour. The significance of Bhutan is also evident in the fact that it was Modi's first port of call abroad after assuming power in May 2014.     

India has its task cut out in engaging with the new leadership in Bhutan for the simple reason that the DNT is a comparatively new player in that country's political arena as the party was formed just five years ago. India has a two-pronged objective: (1) contributing to Bhutan's economic development which has always been the dominant theme in the country's elections and (2) cementing Bhutan's cooperation in securing India's national security.  

The relations between India and Bhutan have evolved a lot ever since the Himalayan kingdom emerged from the shadows of the status of being a protectorate under British India till 1947. Just two years later, India and Bhutan signed a friendship treaty to form bilateral ties from a modern perspective and in a template in sync with their standing as two independent countries. However, one provision of the 1949 treaty, that was widely seen as a legacy issue not compatible with the post-1947 situation, made it mandatory for Bhutan to be guided by India's advice on the conduct of its foreign policy and obtain New Delhi's nod for arms imports.

That provision of the 1949 treaty was never invoked by India but opened it up to accusations by vested interests in South Asia of turning Bhutan into a vassal state. This too was done away with when the treaty was revised in 2007. The revised treaty only states that India and Bhutan "shall cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests. Neither Government shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other."   

That India did not interfere in Bhutan's foreign policy was evident even before the 1949 treaty was revised. Savour these instances: Bhutan sided with China and others on Cambodia's Khmer Rouge issue at the Non-Aligned Movement's summit in Havana in 1979, did not follow India's stance on the status of landlocked countries at the United Nations, signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1985 (India is still not a signatory to it because it considers the treaty discriminatory) and supported Pakistan's Nuclear-Free Zone South Asia proposal.

Fast forward to the 21st century, Bhutan withdrew from the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) Motor Vehicle Agreement for the regulation of passenger and cargo traffic signed in June 2015 citing environmental concerns.

However, Bhutan has always stood by India and taken care of the latter's security interests. One of its finest examples came when King Jigme Singye Wangchuck himself led his troops to fight the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) insurgents in Assam. Prior to that, Thimphu sided with New Delhi during the Sino-India war of 1962 and Bhutan was among the first countries to support Bangladesh's call for independence.

But strains in ties between Thimphu and New Delhi surfaced in 2012 after a meeting between DPT leader and the then Bhutan Prime Minister Jigme Thinley and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012. The meeting did not go down well with New Delhi. In the run-up to the Bhutanese general election in July 2013, India reduced subsidies on cooking gas and kerosene supplied by India. The DPT's defeat in the polls tended to reinforce a perception about India's overbearing tendency in dealing with its smaller neighbours and brought into question the wisdom of punitive measures against Bhutan, much like criticism in India of the economic blockade of Nepal in 2015. The 2013 episode had also triggered murmurs of unhappiness and mistrust as reflected in the social media in Bhutan about India's subsidy cuts. 

India should never take for granted its relations with any of its South Asian neighbours. Prime Minister Modi's telephone conversation with Dr Lotay Tshering laid out the two key parameters of the future of India's outreach to Bhutan: (1) India attaches the highest priority to further strengthening "unique ties" of friendship and cooperation with Bhutan, based on shared interests and utmost trust, and (2) iteration of India's commitment to work with the new government in Bhutan in its national efforts for economic prosperity based on priorities and interests of Bhutan. Clearly, shared security interests and trust are the keywords in India-Bhutan relations.

 

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