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Connecting better

Connecting better

In keeping with India's Neighbourhood First policy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi just concluded his second state visit to India's protectorate and the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. In a pre-departure statement, the Prime Minister said that "India-Bhutan partnership today is of a special character and substance and forms an important pillar of Government of India's Neighbourhood First policy". This visit was made with the purpose to promote valued friendship with the Himalayan state. A time-tested friend, not only is it important to refresh ties with the protectorate state, but it is also necessary to keep Bhutan close and in confidence given the spreading influence of China in the region. Prime Minister Modi reiterated that his visit to Bhutan at the beginning of his renewed term of government reflects the extent of importance the Indian government attaches to its relations with Bhutan. The Prime Minster expressly stated that "India and Bhutan enjoy excellent bilateral ties exemplified by our extensive development partnership, mutually beneficial hydro-power co-operation, and strong trade and economic linkages. These are, reinforced by a shared spiritual heritage and robust people-to-people ties." The year 2018 marked the golden jubilee of the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between the two neighbours. With 50 years of positive ties behind, the Indian Prime Minister marked his visit to Thimphu also as a gesture to step up their relations. Bhutan is a small country that is exemplarily maturing into a democratic state. Today, Bhutan is the perfect example of a country developing in balance with environmental sensitivities and general well-being of its common people. Its success may be credited to the former King of the state and also to its people, but India too has a significant role to play in bringing Bhutan to where it stands now. Bhutan receives India's support on several fronts such as development, education, foreign policy, security, etc. Although it has been five decades since the formal laying down of diplomatic ties between the two countries, it is since the time of India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru that the two nations have shared strong ties.

A common perspective of the premiers of both nations is that besides government-to-government engagement, the focus must be on people-to-people interaction and development as well. And the beginning of this has to be with regional diplomacy; Ladakh, for instance, is a strategic region which has been sharing cultural and religious values with Bhutan for centuries. With this example of Ladakh and its newly acquired status of Union Territory, it must be emphasised that there needs to in place be a coherent policy dedicated to trans-Himalayan region with respect to development and cooperation. Diplomatic finesse must be the hallmark of reaching out to Himalayan countries in the awareness that non-territorial proximity with China is easier to come by for these regions. A reactionary policy is bound to be counter-productive, as in the example of cancellation of gas subsidy as a punishment for Bhutan's first Prime Minister Jigme Y. Thinley for meeting informally with the then Chinese premier in 2013. China's far-sightedness in reaching out to Himalayan regions by means of policies is only too well established globally. The developments in Tibet region, in particular, stand testimony to this. China's three-pronged strategy comprising local, regional, and government-to-government is deployed vigorously to propagate the mythological conception of Zhangzhung in the western Tibet Autonomous Region as a historical fact.

Prime Minister Modi's second visit to Bhutan was a positive event where he was received very warmly by his Bhutanese counterpart Lotay Tshering at Paro airport. A wide range of talks was held between the two state leaders which focussed on steps to expand further their bilateral partnership across various sectors. Ten Memoranda of Understandings were also signed between them to reinvigorate the ties. With the inauguration of the Mangdechhu hydroelectric power plant by Modi, the occasion was also marked by the launch of stamps to commemorate five decades of India-Bhutan Hydropower cooperation. The other areas that the MoUs cover include those of space research, aviation, IT, power, and education. In an economic venture, Modi launched the RuPay Card in Bhutan and symbolically made a purchase at the 1629-built Simtokha Dzong and also planted a sapling there. This place now functions as a monastic and administrative centre and is one of the oldest dzongs (meaning fortress) in Bhutan. India also facilitated a positive approach by increasing the currency swap limit for Bhutan under the SAARC currency swap framework. An additional $100 million will be made available to Bhutan under a standby swap arrangement to meet the foreign exchange requirement. The two state leaders jointly inaugurated the Ground Earth Station and SATCOM network which is developed with assistance from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) for utilisation of South Asia Satellite in Bhutan. India also intends to enhance communication, public broadcasting, and disaster management coverage in Bhutan with its space development initiatives. Enabling better people-to-people approach, collaboration between Royal Bhutan University and IITs of India and some other top educational institutions are in the pipeline in order to come together to meet mutual requirements for education and technology in both countries. It is necessary and of great value to consolidate India-Bhutan ties further for the prosperous future and mutual progress of the people in both countries.

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