|Bhutan Prime Minister Tobgay browses the book shop at Tarayana Centre, Thimphu, on Sunday, the third and
final day of Mountain Echoes. With him is his daughter, who is headed for Hyderabad for further studies. Picture by Samhita Chakraborty
Thimphu, Aug. 11: Tshering Tobgay is walking a tightrope between neighbours India and China ahead of his first Delhi visit as Prime Minister of Bhutan.
Will India’s concerns over Bhutan’s engagement with Beijing be on the talks table, The Telegraph asked Togbay on the sidelines of Mountain Echoes, the Bhutan festival of literature, art and culture.
“Well, I don’t know how concerned the Government of India is. But the fact of the matter is, China is a reality, they are our neighbour. We have a long border that is not demarcated for 120km, and to demarcate it, we have had 20 rounds of border talks already. But the fact also remains that we have to be sensitive to India’s security interests vis-a-vis China, and we are. And none of this is new. So, as far as I know and I understand, Bhutan has been extremely sensitive to the security interests of our friend and neighbour India vis-a-vis China.”
He was quick to add that India had been “extremely supportive of Bhutan’s foreign policy”. While the border talks are on the cards, his immediate itinerary does not include a visit to China.
For now, he is “delighted” and “excited” about his India visit. “This is going to be my first trip and I am extremely delighted that the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, has invited me there personally and I am excited that I am going to India. Excited, because the two countries have shared a very long, established history of friendship and one that is distinctly going from strength to strength. So the possibility of visiting India as my first trip abroad as Prime Minister is very important for me.”
Long before donning the Prime Minister’s mantle, Tobgay had studied in Kalimpong. So he must have been a regular visitor to Calcutta? Not quite.
“I spent a few nights there only and it is one city where I have always felt that I need to create the opportunity to spend more time. Many of my classmates grew up and live in Calcutta and many of my friends have spent a lot of time there. Unfortunately, I have not spent enough time there.”
But Tobgay did travel to other parts of India, including Delhi, several times. But this time will be different. “I look forward to meeting other Indian leaders in government and those in the legislature as also leaders in business and the media.”
Creating more jobs was one of the election promises made by Tobgay, a civil servant-turned-politician, and he is looking for India’s assistance in Bhutan’s Eleventh Plan, as well as help from India’s private sector.
“India has been a staunch supporter of our socio-economic development and has supported all our five-year plans. Now we are finalising the Eleventh Five-Year Plan and through the Government of India’s support, we expect to be able to create a lot of jobs. But more importantly, we look towards India and the private sector in India to help through partnerships with Bhutanese entrepreneurs and businessmen, to strengthen our private sector and, in doing so, increase jobs here.”
One of the planks on which Tobgay contested the recent elections was on furthering ties with India.
On an issue affects the average Bhutanese the most —subsidies on LPG and kerosene given by India — the Prime Minister clarified that it had already been resolved.
“The subsidies related to LPG and kerosene are no longer an issue. The Indian government has clarified that due to the timing of the projects in our plan period and the subsidies they had committed, the time had elapsed. Unfortunately, it sort of dovetailed with the election period but after the consequence of the suspension of subsidies was felt by the Bhutanese people, a request was made to the Indian government and almost immediately, they restored the subsidies. We don’t have an issue there now. So, besides thanking the Government of India, this issue shouldn’t come upů”
So, what prompted Tobgay to become “the first civil servant to resign to take up politics”, in February 2007?
“When His Majesty the king (Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the father of present king Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck) commanded that we are going to have democracy in Bhutan, there was resistance from the people. We were all happy with the way things were. I really suspected democracy and all the politics that comes with democracy. But when I realised that this was His Majesty’s true command, something that was in the best interests of the people and the country, I left my job in the ministry of labour and human resources and took up politics.”
From a reluctant politician to Prime Minister in just five years may be an extraordinary journey but the soft-spoken Tobgay does not mince words when it comes to contentious question like the identity and citizenship of people of Nepali-origin living in Bhutan. “We have our laws, we have our Constitution, which is clear on matters of citizenship and residency. Our Constitution forbids dual citizenship.”