By Jayanth Jacob | Hindustan Times
THIMPU, Bhutan, 15 June 2014
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi received a grand welcome in Bhutan on Sunday on his first foreign trip during which he is expected to step up a charm offensive with the neighbour to try to check China’s regional influence.
A cutout outside Taj Tashi hotel in Thimpu, where Modi will stay during his two-day Bhutan visit on Sunday and Monday, read, “Welcome to our close friend, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi.”
And it was not the only message from Bhutan to Modi. Another banner by the highway read, “We pray for the health and well-being of prime minister Narendra Modi.”
The quintessential tone of Modi’s first foreign trip is that of friendliness and expectations.
Hundreds of schoolchildren cheered and waved the national flags of India and Bhutan as Modi arrived in this small Himalayan nation at 11:40am local time (11:10am IST) to a red carpet welcome at the picturesque Paro International Airport.
He was accompanied by external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, national security advisor Ajit Doval and foreign secretary Sujatha Singh. The Indian Prime Minister was greeted by his Bhutan counterpart, Tshering Tobgay, his cabinet ministers and senior government officials.
Tobgay earlier told The Hindu newspaper the visit was “proof to the world that two countries despite the differences in size can enjoy a relationship that is problem-free and mutually beneficial”.
Relations with India remained “the cornerstone of Bhutan’s foreign policy”, he added.
Tobgay was one of seven regional leaders invited to Modi’s inauguration. Analysts say the decision to make Bhutan his first port of call is designed to underline the importance he places on neighbourly relations, which suffered under the last Indian government.
“Bhutan may be a small country but it is strategically very important and… China is on the other side,” said Ranjit Gupta, a retired ambassador. “If you aren’t interested in your neighbours, they’ll lose interest in you.”
With the exception of Pakistan, India enjoyed generally close ties with its South Asian neighbours in the first six decades after independence.
But critics say the previous Congress party government began to take relationships for granted, allowing economic giant China — which shares a border with four of India’s neighbours — to step into the breach.
The Buddhist nation, wedged between India and China, is the closest India has to an ally in South Asia, a region of bristling rivalry where China is making inroads.
Modi’s visit comes just ahead of the 22nd round of bilateral talks between Bhutan and China expected in July or August this year. These talks, which began in 1986, are an effort to resolve the long-pending border dispute between the two nations. Thimpu is keen to use the talks to have a better relationship with Beijing.
On Sunday, Modi will lay the foundation of a 600 MW hydroelectric power station in Bhutan and inaugurate a Parliament building constructed with Indian assistance.
“Bhutan and India share a very special relationship that has stood the test of time,” Modi said before his departure for Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, which is nestled in mountains and was for centuries closed to outsiders. “Thus, Bhutan was a natural choice for my first visit abroad.”
A grand welcome will be accorded to the Indian Prime Minister after his meeting with Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the Bhutanese king, later in the day.
Next, Tobgay will host a banquet for Modi. The king too will host a lunch in honour of the Indian delegation on Monday.
The Bhutanese daily quoted Tobgay as saying, “Bhutan looks forward to strengthening the economic partnership with India and to strengthen the Bhutanese economy.”
Bhutan, the size of Switzerland and with a population of 750,000, has only recently emerged from centuries of isolation and has a lot to achieve.
Its first road was built in 1962 and television and the internet arrived in 1999. It is the world’s first country to monitor gross national happiness an alternative to gross domestic product, to balance a tentative embrace of modernity with an effort to preserve traditions.
But Bhutan, which made the transition from absolute monarchy to parliamentary democracy in 2008, is struggling with high unemployment and a growing national debt.
The government that took power 2012 says rather than talk about the happiness index, it wants to focus on obstacles to happiness.