Insights into Editorial: Sovereignty and sensitivity: on India-Bhutan relations
Introduction: India & 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.
Even smaller than Nepal in size and population, Bhutan or Druk Yul (Land of thunder dragon) is mostly dependent on India, its southern neighbour, with which it has greater geographical and socio-cultural proximity.
The National Assembly of Bhutan was dissolved and an interim government was appointed this month ahead of the election, which will be completed by October-end, marking 10 years of democracy in Bhutan.
- The Border Roads Organisation, which helps build Bhutanese roads under Project Dantak, decided in July 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.
Sovereignty and self-sufficiency for Bhutan:
The present Bhutanese government achieved the 8% GDP growth, along with a construction and tourist boom in Bhutan.
- They were successful in stabilising the rupee-ngultrum crises as well as for economic reforms. But Bhutan failed to curb the national debt, owed mostly to India for hydropower loans.
- 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.
Steps that can take by India:
- India must step lightly and thoughtfully around the upcoming Bhutan’s national election.
- Government’s decision to cut cooking gas subsidy just before the 2013 elections in Bhutan has often been shown as proof of Indian interference. This should not be repeat.
- 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.
Revisiting policies and issues that had followed:
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’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.
Dealing with China: Not to repeat Doklam crisis:
China shares a contiguous border of around 470 kms with China. China does not have official diplomatic relations with Bhutan. The biggest issue between India and Bhutan will remain how to deal with China.
The Doklam crisis has brought home many realities for the Bhutanese establishment. Doklam, which has long been discussed as part of a possible “package solution” to the Bhutan-China border dispute, could become a point of India-China land dispute, with Bhutan becoming a hapless spectator in the middle.
China’s actions since last June, to build a permanent military presence above the stand-off point, mean that Bhutan has a much-reduced advantage in any forthcoming negotiations on the issue
Experts point out that China’s actions since last June, to build a permanent military presence above the stand-off point, mean that Bhutan has a much-reduced advantage in any forthcoming negotiations on the issue.
India’s effective neighbourhood approach will prove conducive towards building a cohesive and durable relationship with Bhutan in the coming days.
Our bilateral political relations with Bhutan have matured over the years and are characterised by close trust and understanding and extensive cooperation in the field of economic development, particularly in the mutually beneficial sector of hydroelectric power.
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.
As such, India is known for its devotion to democracy and its contribution towards a democratised world. Empirically, India has advocated and supported sovereignty and right of self-determination of nations across the world.
The hydropower projects, where delays in construction and commissioning by the Indian companies took place, have led to the Country’s increase in the national debt.
The tariffs need to be re-negotiated. Moreover, in India advent of wind / solar makes it more difficult for Bhutan to ensure that its hydropower sector becomes profitable.
Considering this legacy of Independent democracy, India should refrain from interfering in sovereign matters of Bhutan.