June 22, 2014



Courtesy: Crossed Flags Pins
While there has been much talk regarding the myriad failures of the UPA on the economic front, what many of us seem to have forgotten is that the Manmohan regime also left the country's foreign affairs in a complete mess. With the new government being sworn in, one of the major challenges before Narendra Modi and the Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj is how to improve the nation's relations with the rest of the world. An excellent step in this direction, a master stroke of sorts came in the form of the invitation that the PM sent out to the leaders of the SAARC countries to attend his swearing in, re-iterating his government's stand of maintaining peace in the entire South Asian region. With either the premiers or the representatives of all our neighboring nations descending on New Delhi to witness Modi take power, the whole episode was hailed as the BJP's regime first major accomplishment. As the former Gujarat CM settled in his new job, one of the questions doing the rounds was which country would he choose for his first official foreign trip.

There was a significant section of observers who felt that it would be logical for the new PM to return the favor and send a strong signal by visiting Islamabad. After all, his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif had defied the all powerful Pakistani army, the Islamists and other right wing elements within the establishment to come to India. However, considering his aggressive stance on Pakistan and the BJP's criticism of the previous government's 'soft approach' towards our western neighbor, a visit to Pakistan, that too at such an early stage of his tenure was ruled out. Another possible choice before Modi was China; even the incumbent Chinese President Xi Jinping's first foreign visit was to New Delhi. Of course, he did travel to Pakistan next, a trip which he could have definitely avoided. Anyway, with border dispute far from being settled and the two nations competing with each other in the race become the next big super power, the visit could have laid the agenda for future talks between the Asian giants. Japan was another country which some thought would have the pleasure of hosting the new Indian PM considering his admiration for the island nation and the progress it has made in the later half of the twentieth century. Old ally Russia and even the USA which has revoked all visa restrictions on Modi which was imposed following the Gujarat riots were also believed to be in the 'reckoning' to be the first nations to welcome him. However, as the 'honor' ultimately went to the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, many were perplexed if Narendra Bhai had lost the opportunity to strike a deal with one of these 'big' players at the onset of his tenure.

Now, the relations between India and the tiny Himalayan kingdom stretch back to 1949 when the two neighbors signed a bilateral agreement in 1949. In fact, ties improved further as a part of our 'Himalayan frontier' policy following the Chinese invasion of Tibet and the Sino-Indian war of 1962. Over the years, New Delhi and Thimpu moved closer with the former playing a key role in the latter's external affairs. In fact, as the Indian army entered and liberated the erstwhile 'East Pakistan', Bhutan was the second country after India to officially recognize Bangladesh. Besides, we have for long been Thimpu's biggest trading partner and have invested heavily in its infrastructural development. Of course, the Himalayan neighbors have reciprocated too. In 2003, the Royal Bhutanese Army completely flushed the ULFA militants from its territories in an operation led by the Crown Prince himself. Nearly four years later, the two nations renegotiated a new treaty, replacing the one signed in 1949 which reduced our influence on Bhutan's foreign affairs, besides curbing our control over its arms imports.

While Thimpu has probably been our closest ally, there have been instances where there has been some friction between the two nations like in 1979 when we took contrasting positions over the membership of Khmer Cambodia in the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM). However, the thaw in the relations between Thimpu and New Delhi in July last year did threaten to break this six decade old friendship. Nearly an year ago as the small South Asian country went tot the polls, the Manmohan Singh government decided to discontinue the subsidiary on LPG cylinders and kerosene provided by the Indian government till then. It was believed that the move which was taken during the middle of the elections was a kind of protest against the incumbent PM Jigme Thinley's 'over-ambitious' policy of reaching over to the world without consulting India. Besides, the officials in the South Block were said to be displeased with the slow pace of work on infra projects being implemented by India assistance. As India refused to renew the pact, the rising prices hit the common Bhutanese on the streets. What came in as a surprise move though was China's offer to Bhutan to supply these essential commodities at reasonable rates. With India on the back foot, the Singh government finally decided to wake up from its deep slumber and agreed to continue with its earlier policy in what was a decision taken to keep the Chinese away from wooing our 'buddies'.

In the backdrop of this avoidable controversy on the part of our government, PM Modi's visit to Thimpu is highly significant. While we have had critical differences with Pakistan and China, a major cause of concern is that a lot of smaller players in the Sub-continent including Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and even Nepal are increasingly unhappy with us, accusing us of 'big-brotherly' treatment. Now, this is certainly not good news for us. What is a bigger cause of worry for us is that the Chinese seem to be making the best of the situation by increasing their influence in our own backyard. Beijing has tipped India to become the biggest foreign investor in Nepal, a move that has set alarm bells ringing in the South Block. China's ambitious 'String of Pearls' which includes building ports in our neighboring has been a big cause of worry for India's defense as it can be used effectively against our navy during the times of war. The cancellation of GMR's airport contract by the Mauritian government seem to have been influenced by the Chinese authorities. Beijing's interest in opening an embassy in Thimpu shows its eagerness to bury all differences with the Himalayn country. As such, it is but imperative for us to assert our position and improve our ties with our neighbors even if it means taking on the Chinese 'diplomatic' threat head on. Considering that we have had historic and deep cultural ties with nations in South Asia, it should not been hard to correct some of our past mistakes.

Besides, we do have our own personal interests in Bhutan that we need to safeguard. India has been the major trading partner, accounting for nearly 98 percent of Bhutan's total exports. We have helped Bhutan in construction of innumerable roads and dams. Considering this, PM Modi's move will for sure be a positive step. By visiting Thimpu, he has sent a strong message that to our friends across the border that we treasure our friendship, that for us, Bhutan is not not another other ally; in fact, for us, it an important and trustworthy friend. Hopefully, in the coming days, the ties between the south Asian neighbors will improve further and help both nations in the long run.


(1) Courtesy: Crossed Flags Pins (Link)