By Aniket Bhavthakar (SAU alumnus, International Relations, Class of 2013 batch)
In 2008, the monarchy of the tiny Himalayan state of Bhutan decided to hand over power to its people and Bhutanese elected their first democratic government. After successful completion of its tenure, Bhutan voted in its second general election on July 13, 2013.
It is interesting to note that the recent election campaign was centred on Bhutan’s foreign policy. In essence, the campaign was India centric. India’s intriguing decision to cut short Bhutan’s gas subsidy also rocked the election campaign.
The recent election has thrown some light on the new aspirations among Bhutanese people. Bhutan is a geo-strategically important neighbour to India. Historically, India and Bhutan have shared a very close relationship bond. Therefore, it is important for India to take cognizance of the winds of change within Bhutan.
Bhutan has two principal political parties, Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) and People’s Democratic Party (PDP). The DPT formed the first democratic government of Bhutan and the PDP sat in the opposition. The recent election has changed this equation and PDP is about to form government with two third seats in the parliament. During the election campaign, PDP had accused DPT of hurried expansion of diplomatic relations. In the pre-democratic era, Bhutan had diplomatic ties with 21 countries. Since the inception of democracy, Bhutan has established diplomatic links with 52 states and the European Union.
Also, Bhutan had committed itself to refrain from establishing any diplomatic ties with P5 members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). However, DPT’s decision to grant Bhutanese citizenship to a Briton and appoint him as an honorary consul clearly violated this commitment. During the tenure of former prime minister Jigme Thinley’s government, Bhutan ran for a non-permanent seat of the UNSC, a move that was criticised by the opposition.
During Thinely’s tenure, Bhutan’s proximity to China increased. Last year the prime ministers of both China and Bhutan met on the sidelines of an environment summit in Brazil. The PDP was critical of Thinley’s overtures to Beijing and claimed that this might spoil relations with India. The increased engagement of Bhutan with China raised many eyebrows in New Delhi too. The new revised friendship treaty of 2007 provides Bhutan some space to formulate a foreign policy of its own. Many observers of Bhutan felt that Thimphu took advantage of this treaty and neglected the geo-political concerns of India while expanding diplomatic ties.
Last week, India decided to cut the LNG and kerosene subsidy to Bhutan. The Bhutanese media highlighted India’s decision. In its editorial on July 8 Bhutan’s English newspaper Kuensel, wrote: “Many Bhutanese are hurt and angered by the timing (of subsidy cut) and feel it is a deliberate move to rock the elections”. According to former Indian ambassador to Bhutan, Pavan K. Verma, this move was ill-timed. Many bloggers and observers see this as a carrot and stick policy of India. Some have stressed that subsidy cut is the outcome of Bhutan’s growing closeness with Beijing and India’s signal to indicate its displeasure.
The Indian government sensed the unease among the people of Bhutan and promised to supply both LNG and kerosene in a sustained manner. It has also assured to hold talks with the new government in Thimphu. While India’s decision to cut the subsidy was based purely on economic reasons, this could have been better communicated to Thimphu. India provides half of its total external economic aid to Bhutan and wants to have an auditing for the same.
Two and a half decades ago, Nepal’s then ambassador to the US, Mohan Man Sainju, had famously said that “Nepal is not only land-locked, but is also India-locked”. Many Thimphu-based newspapers have carried critical commentaries, and feel that today Bhutan is also facing a similar situation like Nepal.
Both the political parties have downplayed the media hype and insisted on stronger and deeper relations with India. However, the decision of subsidy cut was at the centre of the election campaign. The perception that New Delhi is holding Thimphu hostage for India’s geopolitical interests is a worrisome sign. And unless corrected in time Bhutan may follow the path of Nepal, Sri Lanka and Maldives. These countries have accused India of interfering in their domestic affairs.
It is true that India cannot totally ignore Thimphu’s engagement with China. But, this does not mean that Bhutan should cut all its communications with an economic powerhouse like China. Moreover, in this age of globalization, it is difficult to keep the doors of a country closed for long. India should evolve a new model to engage with a democratic Bhutan. The focus on economic engagement is one of the best possible ways to deepen relations with Bhutan and enhance the image of India.
Bhutan is heavily dependent on India for economic purposes. Development of hydropower is a shining example of India’s collaboration with Bhutan. Five years ago, generation of merely 500 megawatt did wonders and Bhutan had a trade surplus with India. Now, India is set to implement 10 hydropower projects with 1,000 megawatt within the next three to four years. This will prove hugely beneficial for a small economy like Bhutan and certainly provide positive vibes in favour of India.
In the recent election, many candidates adopted the slogan of a self-reliant Bhutan. This indicates the new aspirations among the Bhutanese people. The largest democracy in the world can guide Bhutan in realizing the dream of a self-reliant country via stronger economic relations. India should channelize its experience to strengthen the fundamentals of a young democracy like Bhutan. This will propel a sense of self-confidence in Bhutan.
India should heed the aspirations of democratic Bhutan and play the role of an empathetic catalyst to reorient Bhutan’s sovereignty in a way that pushes for self-sufficiency and reduces its total dependence on external aid.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article, as with any other article in this blog, are that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the South Asian University.
(Aniket Bhavthankar, who did his post-graduation from South Asia University, is a researcher at the Society for Policy Studies. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)