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  Opinion   Columnists  26 Mar 2024  Wasbir Hussain | India’s Himalayan embrace: Thimphu ties get enhanced

Wasbir Hussain | India’s Himalayan embrace: Thimphu ties get enhanced

The writer, a political commentator based in Guwahati, is editor-in-chief of Northeast Live, the region’s only English and Hindi satellite news channel. The views expressed here are his own.
Published : Mar 27, 2024, 12:07 am IST
Updated : Mar 27, 2024, 12:07 am IST

PM Modi's visit to Bhutan reinforces strong ties, promises support for development projects.

 Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bhutanese counterpart Tshering Tobgay during the inauguration of the Gyaltsuen Jetsun Pema Mother and Child Hospital, in Thimphu, Bhutan, Saturday, March 23, 2024. (PTI Photo)
  Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bhutanese counterpart Tshering Tobgay during the inauguration of the Gyaltsuen Jetsun Pema Mother and Child Hospital, in Thimphu, Bhutan, Saturday, March 23, 2024. (PTI Photo)

On Saturday, March 23, Prime Minister Narendra Modi concluded a very meaningful 24-hour visit to Bhutan that signalled a deepening of the traditional bond of friendship between the two neighbours. The embrace with which Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay greeted Mr Modi as he alighted from his aircraft at Paro, to people dressed in traditional weaves lining up the entire 50-km distance to Thimphu, the capital, and waving the Indian tricolour indicated the level of excitement in the tiny Himalayan nation of 800,000 people over the Indian PM’s visit. Once at his hotel, even before he entered his suite, Mr Modi was treated to dandiya by local Bhutanese performers. Mr Modi was seen smiling and clapping in admiration.

It is rare for an Indian PM to undertake a foreign visit after parliamentary elections are announced and Mr Modi was already in the middle of poll campaigning across the country. But when it is Bhutan calling, things become different. In 2014, when he became PM for the first time, Bhutan was Mr Modi’s first foreign visit. He visited the nation again in 2019. Now, as he is about to complete his second term and a decade as Prime Minister and is seeking re-election, Mr Modi accepted King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk’s invitation and landed in Bhutan to a rousing reception.

Prime Minister Modi assured Bhutan’s top leadership that India will stand with the Himalayan nation in fulfilling its development goals and that the extraordinary bilateral ties the two nations have would create opportunities for greater cooperation in infrastructure, connectivity, trade, energy and space sectors. Mr Modi also announced India’s commitment to providing Rs 10,000 crores in support to Bhutan over the next five years. For Bhutan’s 12th five-year plan, India had allocated Rs 5,000 crores. This means New Delhi has decided to double its plan assistance to Thimphu.

The two nations signed multiple agreements in these areas that would enhance cooperation.

Assistance and commitments aside, there have been many firsts during this visit of Prime Minister Modi to Bhutan. Mr Modi is the first foreign dignitary to have been conferred Bhutan’s highest civilian award, Order of the Druk Gyalpo. Besides, he has been the only Indian PM to have been hosted by the King and the Queen of Bhutan at their official abode, the Lingkana Palace, for a private dinner. And breaking protocol, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck was at Paro airport to see off Prime Minister Modi. These are unmissable signals of the bond of friendship between the two nations. Of course, during the cultural function, apart

from the traditional Bhutanese dances, local artistes performed to the tune of Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram.

Did New Delhi attempt to send out other messages out of Mr Modi’s visit to Bhutan? Well, this visit came as Thimphu has been engaged in a tricky dialogue with Beijing to resolve the Bhutan-China boundary dispute with Doklam being one of the stretches. The 477-km border that Bhutan shares with China’s Tibet region is of considerable significance to New Delhi as it touches two tripoints with India, Bhutan and China. In the west is Doklam (the site of the 2017 India-China standoff), and in the east is the eastern terminus of the McMahon Line, which indicates the India-China border in the region. New Delhi considers Doklam to be Bhutanese territory and is worried over the possible ceding of a stretch close to it to China, in which case it could be a threat to the strategic and narrow 21-km wide Siliguri Corridor that links northeastern India to the mainland. India, therefore, is maintaining a close watch on the Bhutan-China border talks. The Chinese, on their part, would definitely like to start diplomatic relations with Bhutan, perhaps by having a diplomatic mission in Thimphu, but that is not happening for now.

Bhutan could be wary too about Beijing’s motive. This is where the trust with India comes into play as New Delhi and Thimphu have been locked in time-tested friendship and understanding, demonstrated loud and clear yet again by this latest visit of Prime Minister Modi to Bhutan.

Besides, Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Bhutan came just two weeks after he inaugurated the Sela Tunnel, the world’s longest twin-lane tunnel, in Arunachal Pradesh on way to the border with China. This tunnel has been hailed as an engineering marvel -- blasted through the Himalayas at an elevation of some 13,000 feet -- and providing the Indian military and civilians an all-weather, faster road to the border with China. As usual, Beijing protested against the building of the tunnel and called it as attempts by New Delhi to undermine peace along the border, a charge India promptly rejected, saying the area is an “integral and inalienable part of India”. The US state department also backed India’s position, angering Beijing further.

Against these backdrops, Mr Modi’s Bhutan visit gave out a clear message that India was committed and capable of assisting Bhutan to achieve its goals of progress and development. Now, Prime Minister Modi has also given his government’s commitment of assisting in ensuring the fruition of King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk’s dream project – the “Mindfulness City” that is coming up at Gelephu, along the border with Assam. This is a mega smart city that is being built in the plains of Gelephu, just about 50 km from Kokrajhar, in western Assam, and will showcase Bhutan’s traditional architecture, tradition and culture.

King Wangchuk paid a historic visit to Assam in November last year, becoming the first Bhutanese monarch to visit one of the Himalayan nation’s closest neighbours. Later, he flew to New Delhi and met Prime Minister Modi on the Gelephu project. Thereafter, the King met top Indian business leaders in Mumbai and received assurances from many of them on investments in the “Mindfulness City”. Prime Minister Modi publicly pledged support to the Gelephu city project during his latest visit to Bhutan and promised to build and improve rail and road connectivity through Assam to Gelephu.

Prime Minister Modi talked of B2B and P2P relations between the two countries during his address after receiving Bhutan’s highest civilian award on Friday, March 22. B2B meaning Bharat to Bhutan and P2P meaning people to people. This was also something which King Wangchuk had told Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma during his visit in November last. “We are family”, the King was reported to have told Mr Sarma, referring to Bhutan-Assam people-to-people relations. And it is not surprising to see that Bhutan has extended an official invitation to the Assam chief minister to visit the Himalayan nation.


Tags: prime minister narendra modi, bhutan, bilateral ties