|Foreign secretary Sujatha Singh and national security adviser Shivshankar Menon at a meeting with Bhutan’s new Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay in Thimphu on Friday. (PTI)
New Delhi, Aug. 10: Bhutan Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay will visit India next week amid quiet desperation in both nations to reset ties that have recently suffered unprecedented jolts, upsetting New Delhi’s regional calculus and almost sinking Thimphu’s economy.
Tobgay’s People’s Democratic Party swept the polls in July after a campaign where it stressed on improving relations with India, ushering in relief in New Delhi that was worried about growing coldness in ties with the outgoing government.
The new Prime Minister will seek quick Indian money to revive Bhutan’s economy, after a month-long stop by New Delhi to cooking gas and petrol subsidies to the nation led to doubling of prices in days last month, senior Bhutanese diplomats said.
In fact, Tobgay will ask India for more than the Rs 4,500 crore Bhutan had earlier sought for its 11th five-year plan that will start this year, they said. “That’s just not enough after what the economy’s been through,” one of the diplomats said. “We need some quick liquidity.”
Tobgay will meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who had invited him for a visit in a letter the day the Bhutan election results came out last month. Tobgay will also meet external affairs minister Salman Khurshid, officials said.
National security adviser Shivshankar Menon and foreign secretary Sujatha Singh are currently in Thimphu and have met Tobgay and Bhutan’s young king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk.
Bhutan — a tiny landlocked nation with a population of just over 700,000 — depends heavily on India for its economy, with aid from New Delhi paying for over half the total expenses of its government.
In 1949, India and Bhutan inked a friendship pact under which the hill kingdom agreed that its bigger neighbour would “guide” its foreign policy. Over the next 64 years, India has consistently doled out the largest chunk of its foreign aid to Bhutan, and has subsidised its cooking gas and petrol.
On March 2, 2007, then external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee and the current Bhutan king — then the crown prince — signed a new, updated treaty that for the first time gave Thimphu control over its foreign policy. There was only one commitment — Bhutan cannot “allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest” of India.
The next year, Bhutan transitioned to a democracy, though retaining the monarchy at the head of the state. Prime Minister Jigme Thinley of the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa, who had studied at Delhi’s elite St Stephen’s College, began a concerted effort to build ties with other nations as the revised pact with India allowed.
But in 2012, Bhutan started discussing with China solutions to their border dispute without any consultations with India. “The border between Bhutan and China is of huge strategic significance and what happens there could affect India’s national security, which is why Bhutan should have spoken with us under the treaty,” an Indian diplomat said.
An image of Thinley and then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, smiling hand in hand, put out by the Chinese and Bhutanese state media, further triggered concerns in New Delhi.
Under Thinley, Bhutan also started work on establishing formal diplomatic relations with dozens of countries, allowing them to set up embassies in Thimphu.
“We have no issue at all with Bhutan developing relations with others,” the Indian diplomat said. “The issue is the way they went about it under the previous government, ignoring India’s sensitivities completely.”
In July this year, India ended subsidies on cooking gas and petrol to Bhutan for the first time since 1949. The ministry of external affairs has blamed the cuts that temporarily crippled Bhutan’s economy and earned criticism, on an “over-enthusiastic” petroleum ministry.
But the sharp rise in fuel prices as a result of the cuts, and the cascading effect this had on other commodity prices in Bhutan, made relations with India a key campaign agenda for Tobgay’s PDP as it fought to unseat Thinley. The PDP won 32 out of the 47 seats in the national assembly.