India’s Prime Minister Modi In Bhutan: Reinvigorating Bilateral Ties – OpEd


Recently, the Indian Prime Minister visited Bhutan on March 22 and 23, 2024, which remained important in the wake of the ongoing general elections in India in April and May 2024. After reaching Bhutan, he was given warm welcome by Bhutanese King, Prime Minister and the people. PM Modi was awarded the Druk Gyalpo, the highest civilian award of Bhutan, and thus has the honour of being the first foreign head of government to be awarded the highest award of Bhutan. While conferring upon him this award, the Bhutanese government acknowledged his contribution to the development of India-Bhutan relations and his leadership focus on people centric affairs.

Accepting the honour, the Indian Prime Minister said that this was the honour of 140 million Indians and that this would keep growing India and Bhutan relations for the benefit of its citizens. Prior to Prime Minister Modi, the award was conferred on three Bhutanese nationals only, including Royal Queen Grandmother Ashi Kesang Choden Wangchuck in 2008; Je Thrizur Tenzin Dendup (the 68th Je Khenpo of Bhutan) in 2008; and Je Khenpo Trulku Ngawang Jigme Choedra in 2018, who is the Chief Abbot of the Central Monastic Body of Bhutan.

India also reaffirmed its pledge to extend support to Bhutan on connectivity, infrastructure, trade, and energy issues. The Bhutanese Prime Minister welcomed the Indian leader by referring to him as a friend and elder brother, whose visit was taken warmly by the leaders and people of Bhutan.  During his visit, the Indian Prime Minister inaugurated a 150-bed Gyaltsuen Jetsun Pema Mother and Child Hospital in Thimphu that would be a prime example of child and mother health care and a joint venture of two countries. The project was completed in two phases; The first was completed in 2019 with 22 crores, and phase two began in 2019 as part of the 12th five year plan with 122 crores, which is now complete. The new facility will have specialties in Paediatrics, Obstetrics, Gynaecology, Anaesthesiology, Operation Theatre, Neonatal Intensive Care unit and Paediatric Intensive Care Unit. The Bhutanese health minister also hinted about the establishment of a cancer hospital in the same building, which would strengthen Bhutan’s tertiary health care and ensure patients would not have to travel to India for cancer treatment.

During the summit meeting, India and Bhutan signed seven MOUs pertaining to energy cooperation, petroleum and general supply, concerning sharing reference standards, pharmacopoeia, sports and youth exchange, vigilance and testing of medicinal products,  MOU of cooperation between the Knowledge Network of India and the Druk Research and Education Network of  Bhutan and joint plan for action on space exploration. In addition, both sides agreed to sign an MoU on the establishment of rail links between India and Bhutan. The MoU provides for the establishment of two proposed rail links between India and Bhutan, which include the Kokrajhar-Gelephu rail link and the Banarhat-Samtse railway link, and their implementation modalities.

Indian Prime Minister Modi said that India and Bhutan are partners in not only road and sea projects, but friendship has also reached to space, as Bhutan has launched its satellites with the help of India’s ISRO. India celebrates Bhutan’s achievements and India – Bhutan friendship. He said that Bhutan is carrying a rich culture with a modern vision and ‘promoting innovation with inner joy.’ Bhutan’s gross happiness index is a contribution to the world and similarly, Bhutan’s Gelephu mindfulness city will also become an example for the world.

The two leaders also discussed bilateral energy cooperation between the two countries including 1200 MW Punatsangchuu  I hydropower project and the early commissioning of the 1020 MW Punatsanhhcu II hydroelectric project later this year. Both the leaders agreed that India-Bhutan energy cooperation has the potential to benefit both countries by augmenting energy security, strengthening their economies, generating more employment, augmenting export earnings, and contributing further to industrial and economic development. The Indian Prime Minister also said that India wishes to be a developed nation by 2047 and Bhutan wishes to be a high income nation by 2034  and to attain this goal, India is standing with Bhutan and its objectives BB  that is ‘Brand Bhutan and Bhutan Believe.’ Prime Minister Modi also announced a Rs 10,000 aid package to Bhutan in its development activities for the next five years for its 13th five year plan,

Meanwhile, Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay also visited India during March 14–18, 2024, immediately prior to the visits of the Indian Prime Minister to Bhutan, suggesting the special bond that the two countries share. Bhutan has also asked for Indian support for its 13th five year plan, for which India responded positively by undertaking an economic stimulus programme and extending development aid. His visit could be linked to the economic crisis that Bhutan is facing at present. Due to bureaucratic reforms and a revamped performance appraisal system,  mass exodus is taking place in Bhutan.

In 2022, 17000 civilians left Bhutan, and in 2023, 5000 bureaucrats resigned and migrated to Canada, Australia, and some other countries. This has brought severe demographic, economic, and day-to-day administration pressure on the country, with a population of a mere 700,000.  The Bhutanese Prime Minister, during his visit, asked India to provide 10,000 crores of rupees for its 13th five year plan and an additional 15 billion as an economic stimulus package in order to revive its economy and improve infrastructure projects. This also aims to finance the Gyalsung service programme, a Bhutanese government initiative to promote employability among Bhutanese youth so as to check their migration. The Bhutanese Prime Minister also met top businessmen from India in Mumbai to invest in Gelephu Mindfulness City, which is a 1000-square-kilometer administrative zone that intends to increase employment opportunities, promote economic growth, and build connections with South and Southeast Asia.

On the external front, Bhutan is facing Chinese pressure, which is claiming parts of North and West Bhutan and pressuring it to resolve its border dispute with China. In the north, Pasamlung and Jakarlung are the disputed regions, while in the western part, Dramana, Shakhtaoe, Sinchulungpa, the Langmarpo valleys, Yak Chu and Charithang valleys, and the Doklam region are disputed . China and Bhutan do not have diplomatic relations, and Bhutanese foreign policy is guided by India by the 1949 Treaty, which was revised in 2007. Since 1984, Bhutan and China have held 25 rounds of boundary talks, but the agreement on the border has yet to be accomplished. In the 1990s, Bhutan rejected the Chinese offer to surrender the Doklam region to resolve a long-pending boundary dispute with China owing to the security repercussions it might have for India.

Satellite images show that Beijing has built roads and other permanent structures in Doklam, Other village roads, hydropower stations, communication facilities, and military and police outposts inside the Bhutanese territory of Jakarlung and Menchuma valley. China has opened a new dispute with Bhutan by adding the Sakteng wildlife sanctuary in eastern Bhutan to its territorial demand. India is also keeping a close watch over the Chinese attempt to resolve its boundary issue with Bhutan which have security implications for India. India and Bhutan have established diplomatic relations in 1968 and signed treaty of friendship in 1949 and updated in 2007.

The Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Bhutan and its timing have multiple implications:

First, Indian Prime Minister’s visit just before the general elections might be an attempt to influence Indian voters. The Indian prime minister has been conferred the highest Bhutanese award, and the Bhutanese acceptance of Modi as an influential global leader may work as a positive factor to enhance Modi’s domestic stature.

Bhutan is facing severe Chinese pressure to sign a border deal and establish diplomatic relations with China. But with the India Bhutan Friendship Treaty of 1949, which was revised in 2007, its external relations are guided by India.  The Indian Prime Minister might have reassured Bhutan of its full support in any case of Chinese advances and hard moves. The Bhutanese gesture shown by the Bhutanese King and Prime Minister while coming to see off Modi at the airport is unprecedented. It shows the trust and faith of Bhutan in Indian leadership and the support it seeks from India.

In the diplomatic circle, it is also surmised that Bhutan is about to sign a border deal 

with China, and Prime Minister Modi might have attempted to delay it till the general elections get over in India, so it does not have any adverse impact on his party’s performance in elections.

Thus, Bhutan is a very important for India’s security interests, and India should be very alert and vigilant about Chinese moves in the Himalayan kingdom.

Dr. Bhawna Pokharna

Dr. Bhawna Pokharna is a Professor of Political Science at Government Meera Girls College Udaipur Rajasthan India. She has done her Graduation and Post Graduation from Mohan Lal Sukhadia University Udaipur, Rajasthan India. She was awarded Gold Medal in Post Graduation. She was awarded Ph D on India - China Relations in the year 2001. She has 26 years of teaching and research experience.

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