Thimphu has been as out of the ordinary a choice of destination for the first bilateral visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as was his invitation to the heads of SAARC countries to his swearing-in. The common theme though is India’s neighbourhood, and the strategic overtones in the Prime Minister’s Bhutan visit were hard to miss. Bhutan-India relations are governed by a friendship treaty that was renegotiated only in 2007, freeing Thimphu’s external relations from New Delhi, but still subjecting the Himalayan nation’s security needs to supervision. India has also provided financial assistance to its tiny neighbour’s five-year development plans since 1961, last year committing Rs.4,500 crore for the period up to 2018. The gamut of ties between the two countries covers cooperation and investment in infrastructure development, health, education and most significantly, hydropower projects. Meanwhile, Bhutan itself has undergone radical changes, transitioning from a benevolent monarchy to a democracy. A new generation of Bhutanese have come of age under the new system. The country held its second democratic election last year, one in which, for the first time, resentment against New Delhi’s “meddling” through the cutting of fuel subsidies, among other actions, was openly expressed. Supporters of the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa, which lost the election after its first term, believed that New Delhi was cut up with the 2012 meeting between Wen Jiabao, the then Chinese premier and Jigmey Thinley, then Prime Minister of Bhutan.
At that meeting, which was held in Rio de Janeiro on the sidelines of a multilateral forum, the Chinese side was quoted as saying that Beijing was “willing to complete border demarcation with Bhutan at an early date.” Both sides have held many rounds of talks on the issue, without coming close to a resolution. Chinese territorial claims in western Bhutan are close to the Siliguri Corridor, also known as Chicken’s Neck, the narrow strip of land that connects West Bengal to northeastern India. China is also interested in establishing formal ties with Thimphu, where it does not yet have a diplomatic mission despite a nearly 500-km shared border with Bhutan. All this is no doubt causing concern in New Delhi, and is clearly part of the reason Prime Minister Modi chose to visit the country quickly. During the visit, the two sides reiterated an important clause in the 2007 Treaty — neither side will allow its territory to be used for “purposes inimical” to the other. India cannot stop a sovereign country from establishing diplomatic relations with other countries. What it can do though is to protect and nurture its relations with Bhutan in a way that the friendship grows and does not falter.