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India-Bhutan relations age better with time

India-Bhutan relations age better with time
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First Published: Fri, Apr 25 2008. 12 41 AM IST

Forging ahead: King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, under whose leadership the tiny Himalayan kingdom went to the polls in March. It was Bhutan’s first parliamentary elections.
Forging ahead: King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, under whose leadership the tiny Himalayan kingdom went to the polls in March. It was Bhutan’s first parliamentary elections.
Updated: Fri, Apr 25 2008. 12 41 AM IST
New Delhi: As Bhutan makes its transition into the world’s youngest democracy, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is travelling to Thimphu in mid-May to address the first session of its brand new parliament.
Forging ahead: King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, under whose leadership the tiny Himalayan kingdom went to the polls in March. It was Bhutan’s first parliamentary elections.
Bhutan went to polls last month for the first time, electing the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), or the Bhutan Peace and Prosperity party, led by former prime minister Jigme Thinley, which won 45 of the 47 seats, the Bhutan Election Commission said.
The leader of the rival People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Sangay Ngedup, who is also an uncle of the 27-year-old King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, lost his own seat, Talo.
The PDP had accused the civil bureaucracy, which wields considerable influence in this tiny Himalayan kingdom, of “unfairly” tilting the vote, Reuters said.
But Tashi Tsering, PDP spokesperson, also told Reuters that the only two candidates who won would not resign, but play the role of an “effective opposition” in parliament.
Singh’s journey to Thimphu is not only a celebration of Bhutan’s electorate coming of age; New Delhi is showcasing its relationship with Bhutan as a model one.
India’s former ambassador to Bhutan Dalip Mehta says that bilateral ties are “healthy, happy, smooth and harmonious because both sides are extremely sensitive to each other’s concerns”.
So, when the Indo-Bhutan Friendship Treaty was updated last year, for the first time since 1949, New Delhi was comfortable with deleting clauses such as Article 2 that demanded Bhutan be “guided by the advice of the government of India in its external relations”.
An even more offensive Article 6, which referred to Bhutan importing arms and ammunition with India’s “assistance and approval”, has also been replaced.
The new language in both cases reflects the friendly relationship between the two countries with the usual caveat about India’s interests not being affected.
India’s former foreign secretary Shyam Saran, who travelled through Bhutan as an election observer last month—and saw old and young people travel miles to come and vote—said that Bhutan has become the richest country in South Asia because it has been able to properly harness its own resources using Indian aid and investment.
“Energy-hungry India has helped set up a series of hydroelectric projects in Bhutan, and the energy produced by these schemes is bought back by India. It’s a perfect example of?a?win-win?situation,” he?said.
From the 336MW Chukha hydro project that was built in the 1980s to the 1,020MW Tala project of more recent vintage to the 1,095MW project currently being developed at Punatsangchu, Bhutan has ensured that its hydropower projects are not only friendly to the environment, but also geared to its unusual “gross national happiness” index, which looks at indicators beyond the creation of wealth.
According to industry lobby the Confederation of Indian Industry, in 2006-07, Bhutan’s exports to India amounted to Rs1,448 crore, while India’s exports were lower at Rs1,1305 crore. Analysts said this was because of the money Bhutan earned from selling power to India.
Officials in India’s commerce and industry ministry say that Bhutan, with 35,000MW, has among the largest hydropower potential in the world. India is now committed to buy 5,000MW from Bhutan by 2020, they add.
Since the time of Jawaharlal Nehru and King Jigme Dorji, grandfather of the current King, India has invested in Bhutan like it has done in no other South Asian country. All of Bhutan’s 20 districts are now accessible by road, all of them entirely built by India’s Border Roads Organisation.
Moreover, India has funded all of Bhutan’s major projects, including the airport at Paro, the Bhutan broadcasting station, the Bhutan-India microwave link, and all exploration, survey and mapping of mineral resources.
Certainly, Bhutan’s geostrategic location, nestled as it is between India and China, has always been on top of India’s mind. “That is one of the reasons for India’s generosity with Bhutan,” said a security analyst, who did not wish to be identified.
Which is why China’s generous offer to Thimphu of a settlement on the disputed parts of its border, in exchange for an expansion of political and economic relationship with Beijing worries India.
“China has never accepted that Bhutan falls within India’s sphere of influence,” the analyst added.
Indian strategic analysts, who did not wish to be identified, said that other South Asian nations could take a leaf out of the India-Bhutan book.
“The comparison with Nepal is obvious. Both Bhutan and Nepal are Himalayan kingdoms, but their relationship with India could not be more different,” said one of them.
With common connections between royalty and religion, the relationship between India and Nepal has always been much more “intense, and therefore, much more fractious,” the analyst added.
Bhutan, on the other hand, has always been much more insulated, its Mahayana Buddhists leaning northwards Tibet, instead of India.
But with South Asia going through a period of great flux and some uncertainty these days, Indian government officials said, Singh’s visit to Bhutan will signal continuity in an old relationship.
“Some things don’t change. Like good wine, the India-Bhutan relationship only gets better with age,” said one of these officials, who did not wish to be identified.
Part 5: Sri Lanka
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First Published: Fri, Apr 25 2008. 12 41 AM IST