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Walking the Himalayan tightrope

Walking the Himalayan tightrope
The tale of India-Bhutan prolonged benevolence is set to face a change. Reason one, introduction of democracy  in Bhutan in 2008; and reason two, China’s contentious attempt to make its presence felt since democracy arrived in the Himalayan kingdom.
Past few weeks have witnessed intense emotions from both India and Bhutan vis-à-vis their resetting relationship. Former Bhutan Prime Minister Jigme Thinley’s intimacy with China last year, India insidiously cutting off their gas and oil subsidy to Bhutan just a fortnight before elections, new Prime Minister Teshering Tobgay coaxing Indian government soon after taking over and restoration of subsidy by India – all have happened in a turbulent lake of changing waters. Unpredictability lingers.  

What miffed India?
On 8 August 1949, India-Bhutan friendship treaty was signed. Article 2 of the glorious treaty states, ‘The Government of India undertakes to exercise no interference in the internal administration of Bhutan. On its part the Government of Bhutan agrees to be guided by the advice of the Government of India in regard to its external relations.’
Even though Bhutan has claimed charge of their foreign policies in renewed 2007 friendship treaty, India ostensibly took Bhutan’s former Prime Minister Jigme Thinley’s cosying up with Beijing, which was exposed when he met the Chinese premier in Rio last year without consulting India, as a show of contempt. Import of some 20 buses from China further put Indian mandarins in quandary, especially with a historically supported Bhutan’s foreign policy, including its membership to the UN.
Professor Mathew Joseph C of Jamia Millia Islamia, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Bhutan says, ‘India-Bhutan relation is passing through an important stage. Bhutan was under India’s ‘guidance’ till 2008 (when it became a democracy) but now that ‘guidance’ part is not there.’
Even though the Thinley government played down his meeting with the Chinese leader, not everyone in New Delhi was convinced about its purported innocence. New Delhi was also upset over cost escalation of power projects in Bhutan, which it is financing. In some cases, the cost has almost doubled, raising suspicions of some fund diversion.

Acting wryly, India registered its protest by stopping supply of subsidised gas and kerosene to Bhutan in the middle of their election process, skyrocketing the prices there by three times which impacted the poor the most. It was a tantalising move by India to announce their dissatisfaction in such a way.

Playing the China card

With a population of about 7,00,000, Bhutan is sandwiched between India and China. While the tall Himalayas lie between Bhutan and China, it has an open border with India, as well as free trade, access of markets and cultural affinity. India has traditionally enjoyed a cordial relation with Bhutan’s autocracy.
It is evident from the fact that the present King Jigme Wangchuck visited India in January this year and it was during this visit that New Delhi extended a standby credit facility of Rs 1,000 crore for Bhutan to overcome from its rupee liquidity crunch despite India’s reservations about then Prime Minister Thinley.
Menon and Singh during their recent visit to Bhutan also called on the King to reinforce their friendly legacy.

However, since 2008, when Bhutan went for democratic elections, for the first time things began to change.
Even though autocracy is still present in the Kingdom, India has become wary (and rightly so) of China’s intentions to interfere. India is now sceptical about ebbing of their hold in the Kingdom. As Joseph says, ‘There is going to be a China factor now as far as India-Bhutan relation is concerned. A crack in this historical friendship has been made and it will not vanish.’
He adds China may also play the religious card in Bhutan, ‘Bhutan’s religion is something similar to Tibetans, which the Chinese may use to polarise Bhutanese,’ Joseph carries on. ‘There are political parties in Bhutan now who have started playing the China card. China, on the other hand, is planning to start having diplomatic presence in Bhutan which was missing until now.’
Indian government till now has been officially eschewing the issue of bringing up China as a reason for their recent actions concerning Bhutan.

It would be worthwhile to mention  Article 4 of the new 2007 treaty which states, ‘The Government of India agrees that the Government of Bhutan shall be free to import, from or through India into Bhutan, whatever arms, ammunition, machinery, warlike material or stores as may be required or desired for the strength and welfare of Bhutan, and that this arrangement shall hold good for all time as long as the Government of India is satisfied that the intentions of the Government of Bhutan are friendly and that there is no danger to India from such importations.’ Clearly, it is the prerogative of the Indian government to feel ‘satisfied’ or ‘dissatisfied’.

Revival of relations

Back-to-back visits between Indian and Bhutanese leaders in the aftermath of airing of diplomatic grievances point to attempts being made for resuscitation of relations. Soon after winning the 13 July elections the new Prime Minister of Bhutan Tshering Tobgay communicated to India his ‘commitment to preserve and strengthen the special ties’. Following that, New Delhi decided to restore the subsidy on cooking gas and kerosene for the tiny Himalayan Kingdom. Tobgay had even made a formal request to external affairs minister Salman Khurshid not to implement the subsidy cut as it would have raised diesel prices by a massive Rs 9.45 per litre in the country.
In fact, India’s new foreign secretary Sujatha Singh picked Bhutan as her first destination to visit after taking over. Her three-day visit (8-10 August) to Bhutan along with national security advisor Shiv Shankar Menon is believed to have been fruitful.

Ministry of external affairs officials said that Bhutan had presented the draft of 11th plan to NSA and foreign secretary during the visit. ‘We have been shown the draft and are assured that it will be implemented soon. We, on the other hand, have promised all our assistance to Bhutan,’ a senior MEA official said.
MEA had earlier claimed expiry of 10th plan on 30 June as a reason to cut the oil subsidies. Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay is now slated to visit India next month to further strengthen the ties.

Exercising caution
India has managed to turn the tide their way momentarily with new Bhutan Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay reiterating that India remains their special ally. Any assurance, however, that the equation will stay the same is far-fetched. The Thinley regime has certainly injected a thorn in the warm ties between India-Bhutan. A bitter approach by India may further decimate the relations. Running amok by one-shot cut in subsidy may not help in bringing back the warmth. On the contrary, it might end up fomenting an anti-India sentiment among the people in Bhutan. Joseph says, ‘India should wait and watch and should not act hastily as that can stir nationalist emotions in Bhutan against India.’

Yet, exactly at the point when all seems to have returned to a blithe mood, an awkward wind of change has begun to blow, unfortunately coinciding with the introduction of democracy in the Bhutanese kingdom, which may prove to be detrimental. Any erroneous action at this juncture may put the relations in jeopardy.

Mohit Sharma

Mohit Sharma

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