“Our foreign policy shall prioritise strengthening our time-tested friendship with India,” opens the foreign policy section of Bhutan’s incumbent Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay’s party manifesto.
The Himalayan nation is gearing up for its third general elections, and in no unclear terms does it state its commitment to bolstering the five-decade-old bilateral ties it shares with India.
The manifestos of all the four parties—Prime Minister Tobgay’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) and the Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party (BKP)—give India the prominence it expects.
While the PDP and the DPT— having governed the nation at least once— are more eloquent and clear-sighted about the granular details of Bhutan’s foreign policy goals, the two new entrants, the BKP and the DNT, are still finding their political and diplomatic vocabulary.
Self Reliance and Sovereignty
All the four parties in the political fray underscore the importance of self-reliance and sovereignty. For Bhutan, a large part of its internal socio-economic well-being is a function and outcome of its relationship with the neighbouring countries. Any party in power will have this Sword of Damocles hanging over their head.
India gets mentioned not only in the foreign policy sections of the manifesto of parties but also in the parts pertaining to economic vision.
The PDP and the DPT pledge employment generation—a prime concern among the Bhutanese youth today—and seem to rely heavily on the hydropower projects that India has a key role to play in. Interestingly, the DNT has articulated that the reliance on electricity for job creation is a bit exaggerated. Their manifesto says, “Although electricity is, by far, given huge importance in the country’s economy, there are limited youth employment opportunities in the sector, especially in view of the nature of jobs.”
All the parties also appear intent on expanding their exports to achieve desired economic growth.
The DNT assesses Bhutan’s external trade situation as “very fragile and highly vulnerable to exogenous shocks” noting that trade with India constitutes more than 80 percent of the total foreign trade. It also sees Bhutan’s reliance on hydropower exports as worrisome.
The party may be addressing a constituency that believes that living under India’s shadow may not be the ideal state of existence for Bhutan.
The DPT, on the other hand, is seeing India as a facilitator for its third-country exports plan, seeking to utilise the river ports of Brahmaputra.
The China Factor
“We like India but we don’t like Indians, we don’t like China but we like the Chinese,” says an urban Bhutanese. While it may sound unpleasant, the statement tells the twin tale of minor and major irritants that the Bhutanese deal with. The nation is torn between the Chinese aggression along its borders and the hordes of Sunday tourists entering Bhutan through the Jaigaon-Phuentsholing gate haggling with local vendors. Bhutan sees itself as a proud nation and the perceived arrogance of Indian officials on deputation, who accord little importance to the Bhutanese culture, also does not go down well with them.
Yes, comparing China’s menacing countenance on the border with India’s patronising demeanour is a bit of a stretch, but the Bhutanese are better off without both.
“We do not want to be bullied,” a school teacher shared during a casual conversation at a Thimphu pub. Her companion, dressed in a traditional gho, periodically interjected with jocular chants of ‘Jai Modi’.
The Bhutanese got the real taste of their geopolitically precarious position during the Doklam standoff of 2017 involving India and China. They are beginning to speculate that their relationship with India is not without terms and conditions.
Yet, the scales are still tipping in India’s favour. The DPT and the two new parties do not mention China even once in their manifestos. Only the PDP bothers to mention, almost nonchalantly, “We shall continue the ongoing border negotiations with China.” The Bhutanese are still not looking at China as an ally or even an economic benefactor.
The ruling PDP’s failure in bringing down the national debt—India remains the primary creditor extending significant hydro power loans to Bhutan—is said to have given the pro-China lobby some ammunition but the manifestos tell a different tale altogether. Disgruntlement about the power-tariff negotiations aside, Bhutan may not be looking for a replacement yet.
India Can’t Take Goodwill For Granted
India, however, will be ill-advised to take this goodwill for granted especially in the light of the Nepal conundrum. Post 2015-16 blockade in the Terai, India lost significant diplomatic ground, which China has been too eager to occupy ever since. A Nepal 2.0 avatar of Bhutan does not suit India at all, the Bhutanese are wary of it, too. China, however, is unlikely to waste time in exploiting a situation like this. It acted with alacrity in Nepal.
China’s ubiquitous presence in the Nepalese markets, its involvement in key infrastructure and power projects, and generous scholarships to Nepalese students have collectively given India an ocular proof of Nepal’s shifting proclivities.
For a 10-year-old democracy, Bhutan has done a good job of keeping religion and politics apart despite the fact that constitutionally speaking, Bhutan identifies itself as a Budhhist nation. No monk or nun, Buddhist or otherwise, can stand for office or even vote. In contrast, Bhutan’s neighbours are witnessing a bigger conflation of politics and religion.
Bhutan shares religious links with both India and China. Of late, Indian polity has found itself entangled in a communal discourse. The chinks in the armour of the world’s largest democracy are there for all to see. Bhutan, perhaps, seeks more reassurances from India, and not just on Doklam.