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Clawback bid shapes Modi’s Bhutan choice

New Delhi, June 13: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s choice of tiny Bhutan for his first foreign trip is driven by a carefully crafted foreign policy thrust on reasserting India’s primacy in its immediate neighbourhood, eroded by serial setbacks in recent years.

Modi’s June 15 trip is a crucial link in a chain of initiatives that India is planning as a part of this push, several senior officials have independently told The Telegraph.

The new thrust comes against a backdrop of concern within India’s diplomatic establishment over serial blunders that have pushed Bhutan and several other neighbours closer to Beijing than ever before.

“Bhutan is one of our most important and strategic partners and is a very good country to show our policy of good neighbourliness in South Asia,” foreign secretary Sujatha Singh said today, responding to a question on Modi’s choice of Bhutan as his first foreign destination.

Inviting the leaders of Mauritius and regional grouping Saarc, which India has dominated, to Modi’s swearing-in last month was the first step in this new policy focus, the officials said.

Soon after Modi returns from Bhutan, foreign minister Sushma Swaraj will fly to Dhaka on her first trip after taking charge. She will meet Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the leader of the Opposition, Begum Khaleda Zia.

A Modi visit to Nepal is also “on the anvil”, a senior diplomat said.

“Inviting Saarc leaders to the inauguration and picking Bhutan for the PM’s first foreign visit are masterstrokes by the new government,” retired envoy Ranjit Gupta, who has served in Nepal, Thailand and West Asia, said.

“And the foreign minister visiting Bangladesh on her maiden foreign trip is a great move too.”

Although Modi has showcased his desire to work with China, he remains aware of Beijing’s growing clout in New Delhi’s traditional zone of influence. The new Prime Minister, an aide said, is prepared for the cat-and-mouse games India will need to engage in to regain lost influence without provoking China.

Modi, the aide said, is also aware of the foreign policy errors that have ceded Indian geopolitical space in the neighbourhood. In multiple election campaign speeches, Modi had referred to India’s declining influence in South Asia, using Sri Lanka and the Maldives as his principal examples.

India voted twice against Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council, and Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh boycotted a key Commonwealth meeting in Sri Lanka, nudging Colombo closer to a Beijing ready to invest in the island nation.

In the Maldives too, India’s failure to appear impartial between key political contenders led to Male expelling top Indian infrastructure firm GMR from a multi-crore airport contract, demonstrating its willingness to risk its relations with India.

China has overtaken India as the source of most tourists to the Maldives, whose economy depends heavily on tourism.

Coalition compulsions in Bengal forced the Manmohan Singh government to put two key pacts with Bangladesh —on a swap of land enclaves and on the sharing of the Teesta waters — on the backburner.

Nepal kept requesting India for a prime ministerial visit — no Indian Prime Minister has visited Nepal for bilateral talks in 17 years — but Singh could not make the trip in his 10 years in office.

And soon after the former Prime Minister of Bhutan met his then Chinese counterpart, India dramatically cut its oil subsidies to the mountain nation that keep Bhutan’s economy afloat.

These subsidies were restored, but only after a change of government in Bhutan. India insists that the subsidy cut was unrelated to Thimpu’s ties with China but few in Bhutan believe New Delhi.

Modi, unlike his predecessor, has a clear mandate. By inviting the Saarc leaders, including Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif, to his inauguration, he has demonstrated that he is unwilling to allow domestic political pressures to derail his foreign policy plans, Gupta said.

“It is extremely important to engage with your closest neighbours in South Asia, and not in a way that they fear you but in a way that they see you as the one they can turn to,” Gupta said.

“By visiting Bhutan first, the PM is saying, ‘You may be a small country but you are important to us.’ The idea is to convince them that you share a common vision for the region and are willing to work for it.”

Ironically, China itself offers one of the best examples of the challenges posed by tense neighbourly relations. Barring North Korea, not one of China’s neighbours is on warm terms with Beijing.

“Unless there is peace and stability with your neighbours, you will constantly face a drag on your resources,” Gupta said. “That’s not a place where you want to be.”