In diplomacy, subtext and context are more important than text. Narendra Modi’s first foreign visit as Prime Minister is no exception to this rule. His Thimphu trip was intended to show that in the new scheme of things, the neighbourhood enjoys high priority. This is obvious.
Less obvious may be the reasons for Prime Minister Modi telling a joint session of the Bhutan Parliament that “relationship with Bhutan will be a key foreign policy priority of my government”. A good neighbour, he said, is important for a country’s happiness, and in its absence a nation cannot live in peace despite prosperity.
The prosperous neighbour, for both India and Bhutan, is China; and, China, like India, is troubled by Islamist terrorism, which can be traced to Pakistan. Modi pointedly reminded Bhutan that one of the factors responsible for its happiness was having a good neighbour like India.
On the face of it, this is a self-congratulatory assertion. To view it as immodest and debatable would be to miss the point Modi is making, viz that Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness could suffer if the country moved closer to China and faltered in adhering to the special relationship that binds it to India. The flip side of the assurance — that a strong India can ensure generous help to neighbours — is that New Delhi could make it hard for smaller neighbours who cosy up to China, or Pakistan for that matter.
Modi did not mention China during his two-day visit to. Yet the references are there to make it clear that India wants to embrace Bhutan more tightly to prevent this neighbour from “straying” towards China.
Bhutan may have been chosen for his first visit, because the relationship is more manageable than ties with others in the region. India has had problems with Bhutan in the past, but these were overcome by swift and firm interventions. Whenever there was discord or disagreement, these were resolved — to India’s satisfaction — without acrimony.
When (ULFA) militants from the Northeast were using Bhutan as a base for armed strikes in India, then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee sent Brajesh Mishra to deliver a stern warning. The King lost no time in leading armed action to drive out the militants.
Occasional disputes over power tariffs and delays in projects are par for the course, and ironed out in periodic meetings without making news.
One of the worst patches in the relationship was in 2013, when New Delhi cut off subsidies on cooking gas and kerosene in the run up to the parliamentary elections. The provocation was then Prime Minister Jigme Thinley — the first one to be elected — overreaching to enhance Bhutan’s global visibility. He encouraged more countries to open missions in Bhutan and reportedly sought to establish diplomatic relations with China and the US, Russia, France and the UK. Such a foreign policy shift was perceived as being unfavourable to India’s security, and New Delhi cut off fuel subsidies to discredit Thinley’s party and ensure its electoral defeat.
The ploy succeeded and the rival party that got elected, as well as the King, were keen to make amends and appease New Delhi. India-Bhutan relations were brought back to an even keel. However, the suspicion and the seeds of distrust sown did not disappear entirely. Even with the posting of the well-regarded Gautam Bambawale — who is respected for his highly competent handling of India’s complex relations with both China and Japan — there remained an element of unease.
This called for a reassurance that India valued being a “privileged partner” of Bhutan. Modi made that political point emphatically, and on more than one occasion during his visit.
The author is an independent political and foreign affairs commentator