[Burning Issue] India – Bhutan Relations after recent elections in Bhutan
India has been an all-weather friend of Bhutan since the latter’s independence. It was India who supported Bhutan’s admission in the United Nations and has been with the tiny Himalayan nation since decades assisting it for having a distinct place in the global sphere.
Assured by India for its distinct identity and autonomy since India’s independence, Bhutan has been in the good book of India since the very beginning though with exceptional aberrations in bilateral relations. This relationship has come under pressure recently when Bhutan voted for its parliament this year and there was growing tension against India and its perceived interference in Bhutan’s internal affairs.
India and Bhutan so far:
- Bhutan was a protectorate of British India and New Delhi inherited this relationship in 1947.
- The 1949 treaty of friendship modernised bilateral ties and thought it preserved a key element of the earlier compact until that too was revised in 2007, the actual relationship has remained somewhat complex and enigmatic.
- The 1949 Friendship Treaty has guided the contemporary Indo-Bhutan relationship, ensuring India’s non-interference in Bhutan’s internal affairs, while Article 2 of the treaty critically gave India a role in guiding Bhutan’s foreign policy. It said:
- “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.”
- The treaty, therefore, did embed values of trust and equality that may have kept the spirit and momentum of the relationship moving unhindered.
India’s role in Bhutan and issues with it:
- Indian government’s decision to cut cooking gas subsidy just before the 2013 elections in Bhutan has often been shown as proof of Indian interference.
- The Border Roads Organisation, which helps build Bhutanese roads under Project Dantak, decided to make reflective stickers on the road sides and railings, in shades of the Indian tricolour. It raised red flags among the Bhutanese on social media.
- Citizens were worried that this was an attempt by India to impose its flag on their countryside. Eventually, the stickers were changed to blue and white.
- In April last year, the Department of Roads had to remove a board which read “Dantak welcomes you to Bhutan” at the Paro international airport.
- On an arterial highway, another board that credited the “Government of India” had to be painted over.
- The incident was a blip in India-Bhutan relations, but it is a clear indicator of heightened sensitivities in the Himalayan kingdom as it heads to its third general election.
- Competing parties in the forthcoming elections are giving top priorities to “sovereignty, security and self-sufficiency” of Bhutan.
- This election comes days after India-China stand-off in 2017 in the Bhutan-claimed area of Doklam. Therefore, the election candidates advocate a Bhutanese foreign policy that is less dependent on India.
- Another party has a similarly worded campaign manifesto title: “For a self-reliant Bhutan: our concern, our responsibility”.
- It can be concluded that, the concerns over India’s or any other country’s presence in Bhutan’s domestic and foreign policy are not being dismissed.
India’s Arguments and Importance of Bhutan For India:
- Bhutan’s significance to India stems from its geographic location. Nestled in the Himalayas, it is sandwiched between India and China. Thus, it serves as a buffer between the two Asian giants. Bhutan’s value as a buffer soared after China annexed Tibet in 1951.
- As the 2017 crisis in the Doklam region revealed, India will strongly oppose, even militarily, any Chinese attempt to assert control over mDoklam. Securing Bhutan’s present borders especially its western border is clearly important for India.
- India’s key concerns primarily involved the Chumbi valley’s strategic sensitivity and the need to prevent China’s deeper encroachment southwards, and the possible resolution of the China-Bhutan border impinging on India.
- The extent to which Bhutan compromised India’s security concerns was unclear but the extra overtures to Beijing seemed to have sowed the seed for mistrust.
- In India’s defence, experts have said that Bhutan has been playing the China card to both balance India and extract more concessions from it.
- Bhutan has been disregarding India’s concerns by exploiting India’s weaknesses like its internal problems, existence of sympathetic lobbies and sensitivity to accusations of hegemony.
What Should India Do?
- The government should keep high-profile visits at an arm’s length from the election process; especially given that there will be several such visits after the National Assembly is chosen.
- The preceding months may also be a useful gape to revise India’s Bhutan policy and address several issues that have come up in the past few years.
- For example, the hydropower projects where delays in constructing and commissioning in Bhutan by Indian companies have led to the country’s burgeoning national debt.
- India needed “to discard the tradition of offering economic subsidies and negotiating project proposals with neighbouring capitals … (and) focus instead on enabling agreements and let market forces leverage the existing economic and geographic complementarities.
- India’s power-surplus status and the advent of other renewable energies like wind and solar power will make it more difficult for Bhutan to ensure that its hydropower sector becomes profitable.
- Unless India finds ways to help, it will be accused of the same sort of “debt-trapping” that China is accused of today.
- India also needs to focus on policing cross-border trade The goods and services tax still hurts Bhutanese exporters, and demonetisation has left lasting scars on the banking system.
India’s effective neighbourhood approach will prove conducive towards building a cohesive and durable relationship with Bhutan in the coming days. Despite Bhutan’s assertion of sovereignty and democracy, which is viewed by others a turning away from India, Indo-Bhutan relations will continue to prevail on good note in the coming days. India is known for its devotion to democracy and its contribution towards a democratised world. Considering this legacy of Independent democracy, India should refrain from interfering in sovereign matters of Bhutan.