After the second successful general elections in Bhutan, chief of the victorious People’s Democratic Party is set to form the new government in Thimpu. With democracy striking roots in the Himalayan neighbour, electoral politics has had negative impact on the “National Happiness Index” of the country with personalised allegations of corruption, jeopardising crucial India-Bhutan relations. India’s cutting of cooking gas subsidies and subsequent announcement of PSUs like Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) raising prices to Bhutan apparently without consulting the foreign office became the single most important issue in the elections. The result is despite MEA spending almost 50% of its overseas aid on Bhutan, the perception of heavy-handed big brotherly attitude was vehemently created among the Bhutanese intellectuals. As elections are over and the muddle is settling down, India needs to relook at the relationship and cherish this more than 60 years of old friendship for mutual benefit.
With its ‘regional security complex’, where neighbours cannot match India’s strength on any parameters, whichever way India goes, is perceived as a ‘big-brotherly’ approach. Bhutan has been an honorable exception to this. Since the friendship treaty of 1949, India and Bhutan have shared a ‘special’ relationship. Socially, culturally and economically, India has played a key role in reconstruction of Bhutan. Many Bhutanese students explore their academic ventures in India. After the revision of treaty in 2007 and the subsequent transition of Bhutan towards democracy, Bhutan has started exploring its independent foreign policy option instead of being “guided” by an India centered approach. India’s ‘taken for granted’ approach received a major jolt when incumbent Bhutanese Prime Minister Jigme Yoser Thinley had formal talks with his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao, on the sidelines of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development at Rio de Janeiro in June 2012. Bhutan conventionally apprehensive of Chinese expansionist approach, was suddenly perceived to be reaching out to the other side of the Himalayas.
India’s track record in engaging with the democratic regimes in the neighbourhood is far from good. With democratic pressures working from all sides, Bhutanese government will try to carve out independent policy line at least for the purpose of bargaining. Considering these facts, India needs to re-engage Bhutan in the new context. First of all, India should quickly settle the issues related to grants for hydroelectric projects and subsidies for gas by re-negotiating trade agreement and linking it to global prices. Secondly, education, culture and information technology are crucial diplomatic instruments available for engaging common Bhutanese masses, which should be used cleverly. Regardless of democratic transition, the Monarch has very high regards amongst the masses and India shares a warm relationship with the Royal family. This should be utilised with greater diplomatic skills. Most importantly, India should accept that with democratic transition, any Bhutanese government will have to respond to democratic aspirations. India should tactically support Bhutanese engagement in the outer world through UN agencies and allow creating space for Bhutan in return for support.
When China has successfully wooed all our neighbours through its policy of ‘encirclement’, India needs to save the last dot in the ‘strings of pearls’, by building a new bond of friendship on the foundation of shared interests, trust and goodwill with Bhutan.