High expectations for Bhutan Premier’s India visit

Nava Thakuria

Nava Thakuria

By Nava Thakuria

GUWAHATI, India, 28 December 2018

As a reciprocal gesture, Bhutan’s newly-elected Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering is visiting India with a three-day official visit schedule from 27 December. During his visit, the Druk Prime Minister is expected to call on Indian President Ram Nath Kovind and vice-President M Venkaiah Naidu, besides discussing various bilateral issues with his host counterpart Narendra Modi.

The trip signifies the importance of the Indo-Bhutan relationship, as it is Dr Tshering’s first official visit abroad after taking the reins of the Royal Government in Thimphu. It is reciprocal in nature, as Modi too paid his first official visit to Bhutan after getting sworn in as Prime Minister of India in 2014.

India’s foreign ministry, in a recent media release, stated that Dr Tshering’s visit is taking place during the golden jubilee year of Indo-Bhutan diplomatic relationship, as both the neighboring countries enjoy exemplary ties of friendship and cooperation, based on utmost trust, goodwill, and mutual understanding at all levels.

“The upcoming visit of PM Dr Tshering will provide an opportunity to both the sides to review the progress in the multifaceted partnership, and to discuss ways and means to expand the enduring ties of friendship and cooperation for the benefit of the citizens in both the countries,” added the media release.

Bhutan had recently witnessed its third national elections, held in October 2018, where Dr Tshering’s party named Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) emerged the winner. A practicing physician, he successfully nurtured support from 438,663 registered electorate (out of total 735,553 population) in the electoral battles and become the third Prime Minister of the south Asian nation.

Sandwiched between the two giant nations India and Tibet (now under China), the Buddhist nation had been ruled by monarchs, until the Dragon King Jigme Singye Wangchuk himself proposed transforming it to a democratic constitutional monarchy. The Druk democracy witnessed its first-ever elections in March 2008, and prior to that, Oxford-educated Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck was crowned as the ceremonial Head of the State.

Besides DNT, three more registered political parties, namely People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), and Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party (BKP) took part in the elections. Led by Jigmi Y Thinley, DPT won the first national election of the Himalayan nation (also known as Druk Yul in Bhutanese or Land of the Thunder Dragon). But this time the party lost at the polls.

In the 2013 national elections PDP emerged as the winner, and Tshering Tobgay became the second Prime Minister of Bhutan. In the last polls his party too lost and DNT came to the front to form the government. Tobgay was a dependable pro-India politician, but Dr Tshering was not known as pro- or anti-India. During his poll campaigning, the doctor turned politician emphasized only development issues for the Bhutanese nationals.

However, Dr Tshering has lately clarified that Bhutan’s policy towards India would not be changed. From the initiative of Bhutan’s fourth Wangchuck dynasty king Jigme Singye Wangchuk, his nation got the inspiration to embrace New Delhi as a trusted neighbor. The present king Jigme Khesar follows the spirit, saying that India is a special friend to Bhutan.

The Bhutan PM is expected to discuss various bilateral issues with his Indian counterpart during his visit. Among them, the budget for the 12th five-year plan and New Delhi’s assistance during the plan would be prioritized. Moreover the increase of electricity export tariff would also be in the priority list for Bhutan, as its revenue generation is seemingly dependent on the levy for 720-megawatt Mangdechhu hydropower project.

Notably, New Delhi provided rupees 45 billion along with rupees 5 billion as financial incentives to Bhutan during its 11th plan (2013-2018). At the same time, the hydroelectricity projects in south Bhutan have been patronized by India, where most of the products (electricity) are consumed by the giant neighbor as well.

“Led by the Kings who have guided our nation from monarchy to multi-party democracy, Bhutan stands firmly with India. When the Chinese annexed Tibet in the late 1950s, Bhutan sealed off its northern border. The visit of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in 1958 was a watershed moment for Indo-Bhutan relations, and since then Bhutan’s ties with India has remained firm,” said Gopilal Acharya, an acclaimed Bhutanese author and political commentator.

Speaking to this writer from Thimphu, Acharya pointed out that the Indo-Bhutan kind of friendship and trust is important for resolution of conflicts like the one we saw in Doklam last year, when the Indian troops and China’s People’s Liberation Army personnel were engaged in a standoff for over two months.

The conflict started on 16 June 2017 at the strategically-important Doklam locality, which is in a tri-nation junction of Bhutan, India, and China, following the Indian soldiers’ prohibition for constricting a road by the Chinese forces. Finally the Beijing administration asked its armed personnel to retreat and the issue was temporarily resolved on 28 August.

Beijing criticized New Delhi for its intervention at Doklam, saying that the “China-Bhutan border issue had nothing to do with India as a third party, and it had no right to interfere in or impede the boundary talks between Beijing and Thimphu.” However, the Bhutan government supported India’s presence over the issue, declining any land swap deal with Beijing.

The young Thimphu-based writer also added that as a country floating the concept of Gross National Happiness to the world, Bhutan keeps the interests of its citizens paramount, be it for health, education, or a clean environment, while India’s goodwill always remains a priority.

About the author

Nava Thakuria is a journalist and media commentator based in Guwahati, northeast India. He has been covering socio-political developments of northeast India, along with its neighbours Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, Myanmar, and Bangladesh, for various media outlets for more than two decades.

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