Even as Indian officials were at pains to clarify that New Delhi’s decision to withdraw subsidies to Bhutan was purely ‘technical’ and had no political subtext, few seem to be buying it in Thimphu. Elections in the country are slated for July 13.
With cooking gas and kerosene prices doubling and tripling respectively, India’s actions have been greeted with unprecedented criticism on social media, and even those who are blaming their own government for mishandling ties do not buy Delhi’s explanation.
In a piece in Kuensel, Bhutan’s leading national daily in which the government owns the majority stake, Gopilal Acharya of the Research and Analysis House, wrote: “The Indian diplomacy has run out of credible actions to win the Bhutanese trust. These subsidy cuts are tantamount to the Indian government taking us hostage at this critical juncture of our country’s political life.”
Bhutan must tell India that it is not a ‘subservient, protected, paternalised state.’ The timing was all wrong for, this would ‘politicise’ the ‘much-hyped friendship between two unequal partners’ in the run-up to the elections, Mr. Acharya added.
Many Bhutanese on Twitter said India was making the same ‘mistake’ it had made in Nepal, by playing political favourites and ‘pushing Bhutan towards China.’
But there were others, who criticised their own government.
Tenzing Lamsang, CEO of The Bhutanese, a private newspaper, tweeted: “Subsidy withdrawal lesson for Bhutan’s future leaders; Talk softly and carry a big stick instead of the other way round.” He added: “Wonder if Foreign Ministry officials were taking a nap or too busy lobbying for a post abroad.”
Dorji, a consultant, wrote in a piece for Kuensel: “At this point, it is in the interest of Bhutan to have closer relations with India than China. It is in the interest of India to offer financial and technical help to Bhutan… The relations with India have been strained. And let us mend it now.” He said elected leaders had ‘failed in being cautious’ over the past year, and to ‘learn lessons of history’.
A well-informed local observer, who insisted on being anonymous, placed the Indian decision in the backdrop of Delhi’s growing ‘unease’ with Jigme Thinley since his meeting with Chinese PremierWen Jiabao in Rio last June, and its desire to ‘get rid of him’. He said Mr. Thinley had not kept even the monarch in the loop on certain decisions, and there was ‘internal resentment’ against him for ‘playing with the India relationship which is still considered special by most’.
Asked if Indian actions had caused resentment and could trigger a nationalist sentiment, he told The Hindu from Thimphu: “Social media is unrepresentative. Sections of the urban elite, who are Thinley’s supporters, are unhappy. They want an equidistant India-China relationship. But in rural areas, no one uses gas and kerosene and it is all firewood — this won’t have an impact.”
As the Indian ambassador goes back to Thimphu on Tuesday, he will have a tough job ahead, explaining Delhi’s actions — to both friends and new critics.