Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first foreign visit to Bhutan is a great indication that the tiny neighborhood of India will enjoy high priority under Modi’s leadership in the coming years, which was somehow neglected under the UPA rule in the past.
Narendra Modi has demonstrated that firming up troubled or neglected relationships will be a major priority of his regime, a point he has already emphasized by inviting the heads of all SAARC countries and Mauritius to his oath-taking ceremony which is first of its kind.
With such decisions, Modi is somewhere trying to utilize the soft power diplomacy to give assurance to its neighbors about full Indian support at all level in critical times while sending an indirect message to the major regional powers of India’s intentions.
China, which has no diplomatic ties with Bhutan, was keenly observing the outcome of Modi’s Bhutan visit. Over all, from a geo-strategic perspective, the Indian Prime Minister’s visit is a soft counter to China’s ambitions to enhance its engagement with Bhutan for a full diplomatic status.
In the past, under UPA ‘misrule’, India was facing trouble with the slowing economy and it was also adversely affecting the strategic-economic relations of India with its neighboring countries.
The lack of influential and strong foreign policy was also a major hurdle in cooperating with regional countries.
While India was struggling with these challenges, China, with strong economic and political influence was helping regional countries economically and politically to make them depend on China as an all weather friend.
Now Modi, who is a strong and visionary leader, after becoming the PM of India, is keen to re establish India as a dominant power in the region. Modi wants a strong and deep relation with India’s neighboring countries which can be mutually beneficial in the long run.
During his visit the Indian PM called for greater economic ties and a more responsive Indian financial assistance to Bhutan. He suggested doubling the scholarships provided to Bhutanese students in India and offered help in setting up a digital library of two million books and periodicals.
This is important as Modi believes that people-to-people contact is an important aspect of bilateral relations. In Bhutan he also said that for strengthening the interaction between both the countries, especially among youth, educational links will be very important.
In his meetings with the Bhutanese leadership, PM Modi said his government would not only nurture strong relations with the nation but would also strengthen them.
During his visit also inaugurated the new Supreme Court building in Hejo, which was constructed with the funding from the Indian government.
Modi assured Bhutan that India is committed to its happiness and progress. He specified areas such as peace, security, development and tourism for focus of pushing bilateral ties to a new level.
Speaking at a banquet hosted by Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, Modi said India and Bhutan are made for each other considering the glorious traditional linkages between the two countries. “I said a while back B for B (Bharat for Bhutan and Bhutan for Bharat), I said it just like that but later I realized that it must be a sign from god that I said this,” Modi said.
Referring to Bhutan’s unique trait of laying thrust on ‘Gross National Happiness’ rather than Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Modi said one of the parameters for measuring this could be the consideration that it has a ‘neighbor like India.’
The Prime Minister’s comments about India being a good neighbor assume significance since China has lately intensified efforts to woo it and establish full-fledged diplomatic ties with Thimphu.
Modi, who called on Bhutanese King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and later met the nation’s premier, Tshering Tobgay, had expressed satisfaction at India being considered a privileged partner of Bhutan.
The primary focus of both the meetings was the extensive development cooperation between the two countries and measures to enhance the economic ties.
India and Bhutan reiterated their commitment to achieving the 10,000 MW target in hydropower cooperation and not to allow their territories to be used for interests inimical to each other.
Modi also inaugurated one of India’s assistance projects-the building of the Supreme Court of Bhutan and laid foundation stone of the 600MW Kholongchu Hydro-electric project, a joint venture between India and Bhutan.
Three hydro-electric projects (HEPs) totalling 1416 MW (Chukha, Tala and Kurichu) are already operational. Three more HEPs, Punatsangchu I (1200 MW), Punatsangchu II (1020 MW) and Mangdechu (720 MW), are under construction. They are scheduled to be commissioned in 2017-18.
India also announced a number of measures and concessions including the exemption of Bhutan from any ban on export of milk powder, wheat, edible oil, pulses and non-basmati rice.
The two sides recalled the free trade arrangement between them and the expanding bilateral trade and its importance in further cementing their friendship.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi also mooted the idea of an annual hill sports festival with India’s north-eastern states along with Bhutan and Nepal.
Bhutan may be a small country but it is strategically very important for India. India in the past used to enjoy close cooperation with almost all of its neighbors other than Pakistan, but the previous Congress party government began to take relationships for granted, allowing economic giant China-which shares a border with four of India’s neighbors - to make inroads.
With Bhutan India can expect immediate returns in sectors like hydropower, tourism, horticulture, education and agro-processing.
Narendra Modi’s urgency to visit Thimpu before its border talks with Beijing in July, aims at undoing the neglect of this vital country by the previous Congress-led government.
China’s wishes to enter the Chumbi Valley by staking claims on Bhutan’s western boundary, which will impact the Siliguri corridor that is India’s sole access to its north-eastern states.
India, with the change in leadership after a decade, is expected to boots its regional influence and cooperation specially with neighboring countries in order to keep China away.
China in the past has used its military and economic assistance to woo the regional countries to develop ports while ensuring it keeps on adding ‘pearls into its strings’.
Due to this strategy and lack of political will, India’s influence was declining as smaller countries in the region were not sure of the strong financial or political support from India. The strained relation between India and Maldives in last two years is a bright example of this.
Now Modi government wants to strengthen its relations with SAARC, ASEAN and IOR littoral states s to counter the advancing moves of China.
India needs to assure the neighboring and regional countries that it will come to their rescue in times of crisis. Also, India should focus on developing bi-lateral relations with them in terms of security assistance and financial support for developing infrastructure and educational systems.
If India succeeds in its efforts then it can certainly enjoy regional cooperative strategic partnership.
India should focus on deepening its relations with neighboring countries so that they can become great ally of India and in the long run can support India’s political and strategic objectives.
India should exchange regular hi-level visits with its immediate neighbors, conduct joint military exercises, and should invest wisely in diverse sectors trade, science & technology, agriculture, environment, human resource development, space science, new and renewable energy, information and communication technology, telecommunications, transport and infrastructure, tourism and culture, and health and pharmaceuticals.
India should carefully utilize its soft power image to ensure the balance of power in the region while giving more emphasis on its Look East Policy.
India needs to make strong allies in the region, like China has with Pakistan and US has done with Japan, to realize its long term strategic goals.
Modi government’s aims to make India the dominant foreign investor across South Asia as well as the main provider of infrastructure loans, is quite similar to the way China has done in much of the rest of Asia and in Africa.
South Asia is considered as one of the least economically integrated regions of the world and Modi, who is working hard to make India a great military and economic power, is well aware of this fact and aims at economically linking up with the entire Asian neighborhood (including China and Japan) for collective development and prosperity.
India should now contribute to a higher degree of engagement among leaders in the region to help renewed dynamism in India’s relations with South East Asian countries.
India should also provide assistance to smaller countries in the region in the form of grants, soft loans and various training courses.
India’s free trade agreements with Sri Lanka and Bhutan, and the trade and transit agreement with Nepal have highlighted the potential benefits of regional economic integration.
The whole efforts of India in coming years should be in the direction that its neighbors should realize the tremendous opportunity that India presents for their growth prospects rather than finding faults in small issues.