Anticipation mounts: Can the visits usher in a new era of Bhutan - India relations?

Anticipation mounts: Can the visits usher in a new era of Bhutan – India relations?

On his maiden official visit outside Bhutan, Prime Minister (PM) Dasho Tshering Tobgay left Bhutan on March 14, 2024 for a five day visit to India, where he met the Indian PM Shri Narendra Modi, Indian External Affairs Minister Dr. S Jaishankar and other officials.

While nothing substantial and clear about the visit has come out, India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) mentioned in its official page that ‘both leaders reviewed the progress in various areas of bilateral partnership, including infrastructure development, connectivity, energy, hydropower cooperation, people to people exchanges and development cooperation’ and that the two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to further strengthen the special and unique India-Bhutan friendship.

“On behalf of His Majesty the King of Bhutan, PM Dasho Tshering Tobgay extended invitation to PM Modi to visit Bhutan next week. PM Modi accepted the invitation,” the MEA says.

The exchange in visits by the two PMs speaks about the long time tested relations that the two nations share, quoted by many as “an example to the world.” Nonetheless, several from the Bhutanese populace are closely following the two visits, especially focusing on the kind of support and areas of cooperation that the two nations will commit to venture forward. Apart from expectations from the Indian PM’s visit, the Bhutanese populace share that the two visits will have significant bearings on the Bhutanese PM personally, and pave way for a new era in Bhutan-India relations.

“During the first Meet-the-Press that the new Bhutanese government had, the PM silenced everyone about the Nu 15 Billion stimulus plan package that the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has pledged to the Bhutanese people, saying the Indian government will be giving it,” a senior financial expert based in Thimphu said, adding the PM also said that he would prefer if the Indian government gives the entire support at one shot.

“But, we have not yet received it and nor are we sure if it will be out of Indian support for the 13th Five Year Plan (FYP) or part of it. If it falls within the 13th FYP support, the stimulus package does not make sense. This begs other questions – will it be a grant if it is not part of the 13th FYP and can’t India provide it as a grant with very minimal interest,” he added.

According to him, “trust issues will come out, which will not be good for both the Bhutanese PM and the Indian government.”  “We have been made to understand that India has pledged to give it outside the gamut of the 13th FYP support. If it is not, people will say that India has not been true and neither the Bhutanese PM.”

He further added that the hopes of many Bhutanese individuals are pinned on the stimulus package and if the Indian government provides the package at one shot, it would be great.

A senior former Bhutanese journalist said that the Bhutanese PM had several discussions with stakeholders in Bhutan on the 13th FYP before leaving for India. “The 13th FYP is one of Bhutan’s most ambitious plans and we do need support, financial and technical, from development partners. I assume that this would have emerged in the talks with Indian leaders and we are yet to know the outcomes.”

According to him, the Bhutanese PM has the opportunity to showcase his leadership skills in garnering support and ensuring that all objectives of the 13th FYP are met. “Similarly, New Delhi has the same opportunity to send a global message that relations are not only about mutual interest and that India is always committed to assist Bhutan in accordance with Bhutan’s aspirations, which will never be anti-India.”

Further, he added that support should never come with ‘conditions.’ “I am not saying that it has happened on a large scale level. But it does happen and such incidences, even isolated ones, defeat the very purpose of support rendered. Infact, such support has a negative impact.”

An upcoming entrepreneur, Tshering, said Bhutan is not expecting dole-outs from India. “We continue to benefit from Indian support and Indian has reasons to support Bhutan. PM Modi spoke about ‘Neighbourhood First’ when he became the Indian PM in 2014. But in the subcontinent, India has been losing friends, the latest being Maldives, due to which Bhutan becomes strategically important.”

“When we are talking about support, we mean those that are in line with the Nation’s policies. As a middle income country, the kind of support Bhutan will now require will be different. We have new aspirations and as a very close friend, India should understand this,” he said.

Speaking about the Gelephu Mindfulness City (GMC), Tenzin said that the Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Report of 2022 said that with the Indian economy growing at a rapid pace, the number of US dollar millionaires in India is expected to more than double by the year 2026. India had 0.8 Million millionaires in 2021, which is expected to grow by 105 percent to 1.7 Million by 2026.

“The Indian government cannot force its millionaires to invest at the GMC. But the government can act as a facilitator. India also knows why Bhutan is going forward with the GMC. As a very close friend and development partner there is a lot that India can do for GMC too,” he said, adding that the world, Bhutan and India are no longer the same.

“Everything has changed. So should the relations and areas of collaboration between the two countries. This is what is meant by a new era in Bhutan-India ties and partnership.”

Following the meeting with his Bhutanese counterpart, the Indian PM wrote on social media. “Glad to meet my friend and PM of Bhutan Tshering Tobgay on his first overseas visit in this term. Had productive discussions encompassing various aspects of our unique and special partnership. I convey heartfelt thanks to His Majesty the King of Bhutan and PM of Bhutan for inviting me to visit Bhutan next week.”

Meanwhile, all eyes are on the forthcoming visit of Indian PM Shri Narendra Modi and there is one simple question reverberating across the Nation: “What will the Indian PM come with, that will set a new path of collaboration between the two countries?”

By Tashi Namgyal, Thimphu